‘Understand the Past, Act on the Present, Shape the Future’
Transcript of Eric Fry’s Account of the History of the ASSLH
I will be talking about the formation of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History in 1961 and its early years to the mid-1960s. The formation of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History – Labour History Society for short – was a decisive occasion in Australian labour history, although of course, much labour history had been written before 1960 and much labour history continued to be practised outside the new society as well as under its auspices. Nevertheless the creation of the Labour History Society began a new stage, and since I was a participant I am happy to recall my personal recollections of it and to reflect on it. The society was inaugurated at a meeting in the lecture room at the University of Queensland in St Lucia, Brisbane in May 1961. The month of May indicates that it was formed at an academic conference – May being a break between terms in the three term university year and hence available for conferences. This was a congress of the Australian and the New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, known by its acronym of ANZAAS, pronounced Anzas, since a more literal pronunciation would verge on the vulgar. ANZAAS was an umbrella organisation for natural and social scientists in all fields – university and the non-university, professionals and amateur investigators and the general public. The congress held about every second year in a state capital in a rotation was a notable event covered by all the Australian media.
ANZAAS, originally the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, had been formed in 1888 when the colonies of Australia and New Zealand were enjoying the peak of 30 or 40 years of expansive development, confident of their future and looking to possible federation. The Association was intended to bring together in a loose federation specialists and the non-specialists, scientists and the general public, academics from the small universities, politicians, leaders of opinion and the general public. They would hear addresses and discuss questions of theory and issues of the day. The role of ANZAAS had not changed fundamentally by 1961, although some of the specialist scientific and medical groups were beginning to meet separately. The congress was still the largest learned gathering in Australia, with all the social sciences represented. History formed a section of it and ANZAAS was the only regular meeting of historians and associated social scientists. This was a suitable setting venue for the launching of the Labour History Society which deliberately appealed to both academics and activists and looked to support from scientists outside history departments.
Thirty-seven people were present, thinly spread around a lecture room at this meeting on a warm Brisbane afternoon. A year’s preparation had brought them together. In 1960 Asa Briggs, later Lord Briggs by courtesy of a Labor Government, had spent six months in Australia as a visiting fellow at the Australian National University. Bob Gollan was by then a tenured staff member at the ANU who sponsored the invitation to Briggs and helped arrange his program. Briggs was chairman of the recently formed British Society for the Study of Labour History and had talked about it, emphasising its broadness to a meeting of interested people which Bob organised at the ANU. Briggs was a labour, social and urban historian whose writings gained a wide audience and academic respect as he put the common people back into the history of Victorian England and made no secret of his sympathies. Bob Gollan used Briggs’ visit to put forward the idea of an Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. Bob Gollan was uniquely fitted to take this initiative. Born in 1917, the year of revolutions, he had gone from a struggling dairy farm to school at Wollongong where he witnessed the hardships of the unemployed and the brutality of the New Guard. Winning a teacher training scholarship to Sydney University, he graduated brilliantly in history which he wanted to study in order to find out why the world was as it was. He also became a student communist, campaigning against war and fascism.
When the Second World War was transformed by the entry of the Soviet Union, Japan and the United States, Bob – enlisting as a political duty – became an airman in the Pacific war. Returning to teaching, he completed his Masters degree part time and in 1948 was awarded one of the first scholarships from the new Australian National University to take his doctorate at the London School of Economics. He came back to the ANU in 1953, and by 1960 was a tenured fellow despite calls in the Federal Parliament for his dismissal on political grounds. In London, Bob moved amongst the intellectuals who were shaping the welfare state and the historians. His first major book, Radical and Working Class Politics, shows how these influences were applied to Australian history. He saw the need for an organisation to foster labour history and he was able to work with Briggs in launching it. Thus the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History followed the British model but there were no imperial connotations. The Australian labour historians were nationalists who drew on the British example for similar purposes and respected the achievements of their British colleagues.
I was able to take part because I had returned to the National University in 1960 as a senior lecturer in history in the teaching faculties. I had been a postgraduate scholar at the ANU in the 1950s – my opening to the academic world when I was already in my 30s. I do not want to give an autobiography here, only to sketch some of my background to explain my circumstances. When I finished my schooling in Sydney aged 16, I won a free place to go to Sydney University but my family could not support me as a full time student, nor would I have wished them to do so. I worked as a junior clerk in the public service and completed an economics degree as an evening student. I finished it as Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, then went into the army and air force. After I was discharged in 1946 I decided to study for an arts degree full time under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme for ex-service people. I took a first class honours degree in history for school teaching, then won a postgraduate scholarship to the new Australian National University. For me, as for Bob Gollan, the Australian National University opened a new life. After four years lecturing in the Universities of Western Australia and New England at Armidale, I was appointed the senior lecturer at the Canberra University College just as it was being incorporated into the Australian National University. I came back to familiar ground as an established academic.
Both Bob and I were activists whose purpose was to try in a small way to change the world. We had been formed, Bob some years my senior, by the 1930s and the 1940s, and in 1960 we were applying our ideology to our somewhat unexpected status as academics, professional intellectuals working enthusiastically in Australian history. We had also learned by experience how to organise from the ground up. For myself I had been from my youth engaged in sporting, social and workplace bodies, then trade union and left wing political activities. To me the forming of the Labour History Society followed naturally when I saw that it was possible and I began to give more of my time and energy to getting it established and promoting its growth. I remember leaving Asa Briggs’ meeting with Bob Gollan, enthused by the idea of forming a Labour History Society. We set up a provisional committee, of which Bob was president and I was secretary, with half a dozen or so interested people. Amongst them I remember Daphne Gollan and Don Rawson, political scientist who was about to go to Queensland University. By accident John Merritt had also been at Briggs’ meeting. He was then a student in Perth doing research in Canberra. Later he came to the ANU as a postgraduate scholar and went on to play a most important part in the society as editor of its journal.
We booked a meeting time on the ANZAAS program in Brisbane the next year and circularised university staff whom we thought would be sympathetic, and some others like trade union officials who might be interested. The year’s groundwork brought together the audience of 37, some of them of course casuals, with which we were happy. We had travelled to Brisbane with an agenda for the next steps which could now proceed. This first meeting attracted people from outside Canberra who would play an important part in the new body. Sam Merrifield from Melbourne had somehow heard of the meeting and made his way to it. Sam had joined the Labor Party in 1922 at the age of 18. He had educated himself at evening college, become a surveyor, was elected to the Victorian Parliament and was a minister in the government of John Cain, the elder. Then he became a member of the Legislative Council, devoting himself to community work and labour history. His roots were deep in Moonee Ponds and his wider community. He suffered in the bitter Labor Party split of the early 1950s when the dominant right wing faction of the Victorian ALP attacked him maliciously. Labour history became his dominant passion and he was determined that there should be no political feuding in the society.
Sam Merrifield was a prodigious collector of labour history material of every kind – newspaper cuttings, pamphlets, books, trade union and party records, interviews. All this he made freely available to researchers and eventually donated to the State Library of Victoria. In recognition of his services to labour history, he was made a life member of the society in 1970 and was awarded an honorary doctorate of La Trobe University in 1973. Sam was also the author of articles from his own research, which I helped him put into shape for publication. I have spoken about Sam Merrifield because a conception of the Labour History Society was already present in his mind and his activities in Melbourne. He was the leader of a group called Pioneers of Progress, veterans of the Labour movement, which he persuaded to become the Melbourne branch of the society when that was formed. Sam was a working class intellectual, a man of great persistence and complete integrity who devoted himself to the Labour movement, and particularly its history.
Another newcomer at the meeting was Joe Harris, a Brisbane building worker, who was to write a powerful and vivid story of the Labour movement in The Bitter Fight. Joe was a self-taught labour historian with an absorbing passion for the subject. He was a dynamic and dissident militant carpenter who was, I suppose, in his 30s. He was a trade union activist, often at odds with both Communist and Labor Party officials. He was a rank and file worker whose lively mind was seized by the aim of recreating the history of the working class which he knew. He did so against all obstacles, and it was a pleasure to help him with his research when he later visited Canberra. Joe Harris was a focal point for a labour history group in Brisbane based outside the university as in Melbourne, endeavouring to surmount the differences which divided labour in the contemporary scene. Again, I was gratified to find that our conception of a Labour History Society touched chords and found support outside university.
As a result of the Brisbane gathering, I also met for the first time Bede Nairn, then at the University of New South Wales and soon to move to Canberra to begin his work on the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Bede’s career as an historian and his writings on Australian history are well known, so there is no need to talk about them here. He could fairly be described as the most distinguished representative of the Catholic labour tradition in Australia, and he participated warmly in the society. At the inaugural meeting of the society, we adopted a simple constitution, our aims being to encourage study, teaching and research in the field of labour history, and the preservation of labour archives. Membership was open to all at the modest fee of one pound. An executive committee would comprise the president, a vice president who would also be editor, and a secretary treasurer. These three would manage the society between general meetings and, recognising the dispersed nature of our membership, a corresponding committee of not more than 20 members would represent the various states and localities being fostered, its place in Australian historical research and writing and in the wider intellectual currents of the time.
The Melbourne branch was the most substantial since it continued from the Pioneers of Progress. In addition to Sam Merrifield, Tom Audley and others maintained the older group. Some academics now joined them, noticeably Lloyd Churchward. He began to take a leading part without asking for any special consideration. The Melbourne intellectual tradition of cultural nationalism nourished labour history, and one of the first acts of the executive was to invite Brian Fitzpatrick to become the first honorary life member, honouring the man who above all epitomised labour history in Australia and the tone of Melbourne radicalism. The branches in Sydney and Brisbane fluctuated in numbers and activities as enthusiasts came or went. They did however have a continuing influence. Young left wing academics like Terry Irving found their way too. Through them, potential members, particularly those outside the universities, heard of the society and often subscribed directly to Canberra. Many local trade unions and sub-branches took out a subscription which usually continued indefinitely when approached by a society member. Nevertheless it was to be expected that the progress of the society would depend on the work of the executive committee in Canberra. In fact, that meant three people when all of us were available.
On the financial position of the society, it began with nothing so expenditure had to be kept to a minimum for the first years. The society was able to use the facilities of the National University for postage of correspondence - which was considerable - for the preparation of reports and notices of meetings. This was done unofficially, being customary for academic associated enterprises. Being able to use these facilities permitted the society to get off the ground. We should realise, however, that this assistance was limited by the resources and practices of the university. Trunk line telephone calls, for example, were not normally available, nor of course fares for travel. Secretarial help was scarce. In the history department of the Faculty of Arts where I worked, I was one of four academic staff who shared a part time secretary. She was fully engaged on departmental business. The Research School of Social Sciences where Bob Gollan was located was more generously staffed. We were able to use the equipment there for cutting the stencils and producing our bulletin, paying the operator to do this as an out of hours job and paying for the materials. Our bulletin had to be mailed through the post office at ordinary rates. We realised that a twice yearly bulletin which we hoped would become a printed journal was indispensable for the purposes of the society. It would publish labour history articles to the extent that we could afford and would be the information medium for the society’s activities and projects.
The first three bulletins in 1961 and 1962 were produced this way. The next stage was the printed bulletin or journal for which we began to use the title Labour History. Finding a suitable printer was difficult. It was first printed in Melbourne with many difficulties in communications, proof reading, corrections, deliveries, and then transferred to Canberra where most of the problems recurred. The physical task of producing a small journal from jobbing printeries was considerable. We moved it to the printed bulletin with number four of Labour History in May 1963, judging that with the printed bulletin we would increase our numbers of subscribers and fairly soon reach a breakeven point at which it would pay its way. This proved to be the case, although in 1964 we had to launch an appeal to our members for donations to see the society through. The response to this appeal was magnificent - our trade union subscribers particularly giving generously. To them the Australian tradition of taking around the hat was real, and in fact the great majority of our members felt a commitment to the society and its aims, and were accustomed to giving money as well as effort to the voluntary organisations which they supported. Thenceforth we could expand the journal steadily. Our revenue increased to meet the cost and the society moved into a period of continuing growth.
I have mentioned that the executive committee comprised three officers – a president, a vice president who was also editor of the bulletin, and the secretary treasurer. When I look back on the records of the society which are deposited in the archives of Business and Labour of the Australian National University, I am amazed by the amount of work which we did. Virtually everything had to be done by correspondence and the volume of it is daunting. Every day it seemed we were doing something for the society, although that was only an extra to our busy working lives. Bob Gollan and I had support from sympathetic people at the ANU but essentially we had to make the Labour History Society go ourselves until it got off the ground. It was very vulnerable in its infancy. In 1962, Bob was on study leave and I worked with the secretary treasurer who was an archivist collecting for the ANU archives of Business and Labour, and hence constantly in touch with trade unions and other possible donors.
From 1964 we were able to draw on new arrivals to Canberra to carry on the work of the society. Bruce McFarlane, talented and versatile, came to the Political Science department. Jim Hagan won a PhD scholarship to write a trade union history under Bob Gollan. I had become friends with Jim at Sydney University when we were both studying history – he straight from school, me as an older ex-serviceman. Jim became a teacher, a teacher’s college lecturer, produced textbooks for secondary history courses, and as a born and a bred Labor Party member was active in many fields. He was the first of a series of older postgraduate scholars who came to the ANU to write a thesis on the union records which Bob was collecting at the same time as he supervised them. Jim went on to become a major Australian labour historian amongst many other achievements. From about 1964, we were confident that the Labour History Society would go ahead and that it would draw on a succession of young and talented scholars.
When the society began operations in 1961, our first need was to produce publications which would combat the paucity of published material on Australian history and which would bring forward labour history. For this purpose we had firstly the bulletin, soon to be the journal, which we supplemented with extra subsidiary publications. These were home produced. The stencils were cut, then they were roneoed, collated and stapled by hand by voluntary effort in working bees. We produced them with missionary zeal because we wanted to get our message out and because we had to make ourselves known and offer attractions to potential members. We had to find or create our material which was not ready waiting for us. The first was Leila Thomas on the early labour movement in colonial Sydney, an MA thesis long unavailable. When we traced the author to a Queensland country district she was happy to make the work available. I followed with Tom Barker and the IWW, an early venture in oral history. I discovered Tom living in London when I went there on study leave in 1963, so I hired some cumbersome equipment to record his fascinating story of being a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World in Sydney in the First World War.
Tom was an irrepressible personality, a great raconteur and an everlasting activist, so this was a lively essay in oral history as it later became known. It also reaffirmed the positive political side of Australian larrikin dissent and the direct action defiant strand of working class militancy which was renounced by all voices of respectability and officially disapproved of by communists as well as the Labor Party. Bruce McFarlane unearthed R.F. Irvine, the radical Sydney Professor of Economics of the 1920s and 1930s, distilling from his expansionary economic arguments a drama of the policy choices of the depression. Through the courtesy of the British society, we were able in 1965 to reproduce a bibliography of British labour history in the preceding two years – a valuable guide to the new work for Australian historians - and a catalogue of recent publications in American labour history.
Joe Harris, a Brisbane building worker and foundation member of the society, brought to fruition many years of part time research in his First Steps: Queensland Workers’ Moves Towards Political Expression 1867 to 1893. It was lively original research and authoritative, creating the framework for Queensland labour history. In 1968 the society published a collection of articles on labour and the goldfields of Victoria, Western Australia and New Guinea. In the following year with conscription again enacted, a study of Morris Blackburn, labour lawyer and anti-conscriptionist, was produced with the assistance of Sam Merrifield. Thus in its first five years the Labour History Society had established a journal and distributed free to its members each year a substantial study or guide in labour history. In these free issues we had to utilise what we could find, but they exemplified some of our aims. We wanted to disseminate bibliographical guides to encourage knowledge of and research in labour history. In biography, we wished to reinstate radicals who were ignored in conventional historical accounts like Irvine and Barker, or dismissed like Blackburn. With tape recorders becoming available, though neither cheap nor simple, we wanted to put on record experiences of labour activists. In this the society was a pioneer in oral history and supported the work of practitioners like Wendy Lowenstein later.
In the work of Joe Harris, Sam Merrifield and others who produced articles for Labour History or separate publications, we published writers from outside universities who otherwise had little prospect of being printed. In this field, the Melbourne branch of the society with its magazine, The Recorder, was notable. To some extent we were able to encourage history, not only about, but by ordinary people. Taking labour history broadly, we moved towards history from below and social history in a wide sense. Building the journal, Labour History, was our paramount task. I have earlier stressed the role of the journal in representing and sustaining the society. In its fourth number in 1963, Labour History advanced from a cyclo- styled to a printed journal of 50 or 60 pages. Producing and paying for such a journal absorbed the energies of the executive committee as well as the editors. Amongst the early editors were Hagan, McFarlane, Nairn, Cooksey and Molony, as well as Gollan and Fry. John Ritchie held the position in the early 1970s. He was succeeded by David Walker for a fruitful period, and in 1976 John Merritt began his decade of prime responsibility for Labour History.
By this time, a professionally produced journal of 100 or more pages was established as a substantial presence in Australian history writing. As regards the contents of Labour History, political and trade union history were originally the staple, but with class conflicts and ideologies notable amongst the other subjects. Contributors were predominantly but not exclusively from universities. All views were welcomed and sometimes contended on the principle that the society was open to everyone interested in labour history. I will come back later to the way in which the contents of the journal continued to change. With Labour History firmly established, we decided to go beyond the usual academic journal and to make it from time to time a book length publication on a chosen theme. This involved risks in the financial outlay, although in the upshot we were able to market all our special issues successfully and to make money out of them. These thematic publications called for a special editor, or editors, who knew the field and commissioned articles. It was active directed publishing after careful preparation, rather than the passive reception of articles submitted. The subject of each special issue was chosen after lengthy discussion and debate. The subjects show the directions in which the guiding activists of the society and thechanging supporters who joined them were looking. All told, these special issues substantially widened the conception of labour history and had a considerable impact on historical studies in Australia.
The four special issues were on the 1930s depression – published in 1969 – strikes in 1973, women at work in 1975, racism in 1978. In 1982 a fifth volume, What Rough Beast, marked a new stage for the society. The Great Depression edited by Bob Cooksey was near contemporary history when published, that is, within the direct experience of those middle-aged or older. Such modernity was unusual for respectable historians. It would be left to the political scientists and journalists. Secondly, the volume, whilst mainly concerned with politics, presented a wider study of the impact of the depression on Australian society in this decisive decade. The volume on strikes, edited by John Iremonger, John Merritt and Graham Osborne, was subtitled Studies in 20th Century Australian Social History. It was published in 1973 when recent and impending industrial disputes were very much on the agenda and in the public mind, so it was deliberately topical. Its dozen studies of 20th century strikes placed them in their political, economic and social setting, raising questions which later were incorporated into the field of industrial relations theory. They were essays in social history which examined the causes, aims and results of strikes. The special issue on women was produced in 1975 at the same time as the pioneering books by Summers, Dixon and Kingston proclaimed women’s history in Australia.
The Labour History Society had been a forerunner in welcoming women historians and women’s history. The editors of the special issue, Ann Curthoys, Susan Eade Magarey and Peter Spearritt were able to draw on contributors associated with the Labour History Society, and to add others. This book went beyond women in paid work to present wider concerns of the women’s movement. Labour History was a movement, an ideology which had much in common with the women’s movement and which provided a platform for feminist historians to make their voices heard. The three Women and Labour conferences, in Sydney in 1978, Melbourne in 1980 and Adelaide in 1982, were notable milestones for the Australian women’s movement, facilitated by the experience and organisation which labour historians had acquired. At the first gathering at Macquarie University, the level of preparation, the number of participants, the intense debate and the fervour to move forward demonstrated dramatically that a new force had come into being which the Labour History Society had welcomed and helped. Feminist historians had written for Labour History and taken part in the running of the society from early days, especially Daphne Gollan and Susan Magarey. They were not numerous until the 1970s because few women held university positions or even postgraduate scholarships. Later as the women’s movement created its own organisations, journals and forums, feminist historians found these their natural outlet. The Labour History Society had shared in bringing this about, a lasting achievement.
The special issue, Who are our Enemies, on racism and the working class in Australia was edited by Ann Curthoys and Andrew Markus. Described as an historical investigation into aspects of Australian working class racism, the White Australia policy was central to it and was re-examined from all sides since its inception. The attitudes debated went beyond the working class to the whole of Australian society, and were scrutinised by sociologists as well as historians. Aborigines and migrants were included. Amongst the contributors are many who became well known later. The recognition and denunciation of racism which followed the dismantling of overt colonial empires as a result of the Second World War called for a new view of race relations in Australia and of the subjugation of the Aborigines. The Labour History Society was able to take a lead in this and in acknowledging Aboriginal rights. In addition to these thematic issues of the journal, the society sponsored several books. In August 1976 the society organised a two day seminar at Macquarie University on the life and times of Jack Lang. It was a large gathering with participants from all Australian states and New Zealand. The papers reworked were printed as a book, Jack Lang, published by Hale and Iremonger. It was a large work of wide coverage, its 13 chapters mostly by young academics, edited by Heather Radi and Peter Spearritt. Labour in Conflict, a documentary collection on the 1949 coal strike, was edited by Phillip Deery in 1978. It was the study of a bitterly contested and divisive event in the recent history of the labour movement, sent free to members of the society and sold to the public.
Turning to the contents of the journal, I mentioned that in the early days of Labour History, politics and trade union history were the staple. In historical scholarship of the time, political and institutional history were paramount and the editors and authors of Labour History accepted this. I also mentioned the extent to which authors from outside universities and history from below were encouraged. Labour History, the journal, straddled two or more worlds being part, but a critical part, of the conventional historical enterprise. The movement towards a wider social history, which was symbolised in the new subtitle ‘A Journal of Labour and Social History’ under John Merritt’s editorship in 1981, had been long underway as he observed the debate in Australia, Britain and elsewhere. The emphasis had turned to social history, to the multiplicity of relations in and beyond the labouring classes, the ideologies, gender and race and, in period, nearer to the present. Another achievement of the Labour History journal was to create a substantial book review section which recorded and assessed a wide variety of books, principally Australian, in the fields connected to labour history. When the journal was first published in the early 1960s, this service scarcely existed in the few history journals or elsewhere in Australia. Credit for the innovation belongs to Bill Ford of the University of New South Wales who in 1965 as first review editor began to review about a dozen books at some length each issue. They were mostly Australian, but also North American and British, on many aspects of labour. He was followed as review editor by Jim Hagan, John Merritt, Peter Spearritt and myself. By the mid 1970s, reviews and short notices ran to more than 20 pages. This had been a cumulative process of persuading publishers and finding reviewers. We always tried to avoid cliques and to look for new young reviewers who knew the subject and would make a judgement. Australian publishing had grown greatly, and Labour History kept its readers up to date with this output and the debates of the day.
In speaking about the foundation of the society, I explained its constitution and how it was run in its early days. I will pick up that theme again now to discuss how the society was managed and how it sustained itself into the 1970s. Ten years or so after its foundation, the society was managing a sizeable enterprise, and for this reason incorporated as a registered non-profit association under ACT law. From the beginning, all subscribers to the journal became members of the society, an affirmation of democratic control which was always present. In fact, most subscribers did not seek to take an active part in the running of the society at the centre, although more participated through the branches in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and elsewhere. The branches were fairly autonomous, developing their own character. In Melbourne, after the passing of Sam Merrifield and his contemporaries, Peter Love maintained the twin supports of political activism and research. The membership continued to grow in the 1970s, ranging around eight or nine hundred paid up – a large number for a serious journal. Most of them were university staff or research students or school teachers. A sizeable number of trade unions and their branches subscribed, as did many officials and activists from all sides of the labour movement and the libraries of most educational institutions.
Overseas subscriptions, mainly from universities and institutes in the UK, USA and Europe were significant. There was a turnover in members as their circumstances and interests changed, so we constantly sought new members by all publicity means available to us, principally leaflets, often exchanging them to enclose with other magazines of the left and all those distributing them at conferences or meetings to possible subscribers. This was the cheapest and simplest form of publicity which we systematically employed at every opportunity, building up lists to target the categories at which we were aiming. Because I had learned accountancy as well as economics, I kept an oversight of the finances. I was determined we would not founder financially. I had seen so many small journals and enterprises of the left struggle to keep afloat until mere survival took over from their original aims. Taking for granted that our means would always be small, we had to operate within them while we worked to increase them. We had to combine large aims with strict economy. In order to attract members, and as a matter of principle, we kept the subscription low, but as our expenses increased with our activities, we needed a growing membership to sustain our work. We were operating in a period of continuing inflation, so our money subscription had to rise to maintain its real value. The subscription could only be varied at general meetings held about every two years, so some economic forecasting was necessary to pitch a rate which would not alienate members now, but would see us through two years inflation.
For 20 years or more we were able to pay our way through a growing and then steady membership. Our free supplements and special issues of the journal cost money but attracted subscribers. Some publications had good outside sales through bookshops and direct orders. Some of our income was irregular but over the years we made more than we spent. I wanted to build up a reserve which would cover these fluctuations and see us through any contingencies, and this we were able to do. Bruce McFarlane, our other financial guide in the early years, propounded in line with his studies of under-consumptionist economics the maxim that you had to spend money, even if you did not have any, in order to make money. His entrepreneurial drive carried us over many obstacles in our early years. Looking back at the management of the society in its first 15 or 20 years, its location in Canberra was essential from the first, even of Briggs’ visit there. We were midwives to its birth, the National University provided the helpers and resources to set it up. The National University had another quality – it was outside the interstate jealousies which bedevilled would-be national bodies in Australia. In practice, neither Melbourne nor Sydney would happily accept the other as headquarters, and the lesser centres would feel excluded. Canberra in 1961 was now dominant as a national capital, yet the only neutral locale. It was also the representative focus, since all of us came from somewhere else and now we had to work together with each other.
Those of us at the National University felt that we had a special position in historical writing as in other fields as representing the whole of Australia. The National University was able to provide the people and resource, at first barely - in the beginning Bob and Daphne Gollan, myself and a few others, but the ANU was growing rapidly. In the social sciences, it was offering postgraduate scholarships for three years and research scholarships at a higher level for longer periods. So a flow of young academics moved through the ANU, many of them working for the Labour History Society during their stay. Amongst the early arrivals were Don Wilson, Bob Cooksey and Bruce McFarlane in political science, Jim Hagan, John Merritt and Bruce Mitchell in history. During the 1960s the staff of the ANU also increased greatly, particularly in the undergraduate teaching faculties. In 1960 I was the fourth member of the History Department there. By the mid 1970s it numbered about 25. New appointments included Molony, Merritt, Ritchie, Les Louis and Jill Waterhouse. Bede Nairn came to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. The pivotal position of the National University nourished labour history throughout Australia. Those who joined the society there became advocates when they returned home and spread news of the society. We in Canberra were always sure that our constituency lay beyond that city. We constantly canvassed for the society. We spoke about it when we travelled, we publicised it widely.
The general meetings of the society, held at least every two years, were always programmed to take place at a major historical conference held at the capital cities in rotation. We would make this the occasion for a recruiting drive from the centre and the strengthening of the local branch if one existed. Whist many of our personnel changed, the principles on which the society operated continued. The founders of the Labour History Society, Australian nationalists, were also internationalists and the society played a role internationally. We modelled ourselves on the British Society, adopting the same general objectives. We were not simply imitative, since in Australia something of a federal structure was necessary and the production of a substantial journal was a priority. Whilst we pursued Australian history, we looked to British historians of the left whose experience and achievements were much greater than ours. Some of our earliest efforts were directed to making these achievements better known in Australia. Hence there was from the beginning a close intellectual tie in which British historians were the leaders in the same world of discourse without any colonial relationship. This connection was facilitated by the two Labour History Societies. In 1963 I attended a meeting of the British society discussing the international labour movement and reported on the work of the Australian society. Australian and British historians working in similar fields were put in touch with one another. Most of the traffic was one way from Australia to Britain on postgraduate scholarships or study leave, or by correspondence.
This continued a longstanding practice, but the range of contacts became much wider and when Australian professors sponsored protégés, usually through an Oxford connection. It became common for Australian labour historians in England to meet colleagues in their field, attend conferences and seminars and be given research facilities. London University offered many opportunities, and of the other universities, Warwick with its Centre for the Study of Social History established a firm Australian connection. Warwick University, through the initiative of Royden Harrison in 1981 staged the first conference on the labour history of the British Commonwealth, the overseas participants being Australian, New Zealand and Canadian. This was a considerable achievement with about 40 papers being presented, 12 of them from Australia. It was the first time Australian labour historians could attend and present the results of their research in an international conference in which they had a central place. The subjects of the conference were grouped to provide shared themes for comparison, and in many cases common British origins strengthened the coherence. The conference was successful intellectually and socially, cementing many contacts which continued. The Canadian and Australian Labour History Societies were later to advance to much more integrated comparative studies, models of their kind. I was able to edit a book, Common Cause – Essays in Australian and New Zealand Labour History, based on papers delivered at this conference.
From the beginning the society had a few New Zealand members towards whom I felt we had a fraternal responsibility, particularly since Australian and New Zealand history were parallel streams which often overlapped. Bert Roth, librarian at Auckland University, worked assiduously to promote labour history in New Zealand. We assisted as far as we could in making a place in Labour History for New Zealand articles. Sometimes New Zealanders came to the National University, like Len Richardson. We realised that in the long term, New Zealand labour historians would have to make their way at home, which they did as the New Zealand historical community grew. In Common Cause, Erik Olssen drew the outlines of the New Zealand labour movement and some of its specific connections. On the formal side of international connections, the Australian society played some part in the uneasy shadow boxing of the Cold War period. I was invited, representing Australia, to the first international conference of Centres for the Study of Labour History held in Mexico City in 1975 and sponsored by the International Labour Office, ILO. The participants included the British society, the International Association of Labour History Institutions centred in London and comprising West European bodies, the Institute of the International Working Class Movement of the USSR, and some others from Europe and South America. The conference was arranged by the Mexican Labour History Centre, funded by the Ministry of Labour. The centre was directed by a board representing government, trade unions and universities, and carried the imprimatur of the Mexican Government.
My attendance had been in doubt. My application for a United States transit visa was not granted which did not surprise me, knowing that my ASIO file would be passed on. This kind of delay had been used against Oliphant and others to prevent them getting to a meeting or conference on a set date. I went to Sydney to interview a senior visa official, emphasising that I would publicise a refusal, and at the last moment the visa was granted, presumably because of the sponsorship of the conference by the ILO and the Mexican Government. So I was permitted to spend a couple of hours in the Los Angeles transit lounge. At the conference, Western, Soviet and Third World positions were exemplified and I was pleased to be something of a mediator. Despite the differences, common ground was found, much of it concerned with the machinery and materials of research. The conference was enlightening and stimulating, our hosts generous in showing us Mexico, ancient and modern – a vibrant society of 80 million people for which the broad national coalition government sought an independent path at that time, leaning to the left. John Merritt and Andrew Markus wrote an article published in Spanish for the world body on the origins of May Day, Australia with its early eight hour day being an exceptional case study. A second conference which Bob Gollan attended, met in Mexico a few years later but this world body was to be stillborn in the continuing Cold War. For a remote country, we had been active in making international connections, firstly in Britain then beyond. In the traffic of ideas, continental Europe and North America were to grow in importance as members of the society disseminated them.
I have been speaking about Labour History and the Labour History Society from the inside looking out, and of course that is the way institutional histories are conceived and composed, but if we want to understand the institution we must also stand outside it and must shift our stance from the subjective to the objective, from the personal actors to the impersonal influences. I would like to move to that now. As I was saying in the first interview, the Labour History Society was started by a handful of left intellectuals, and it continued to draw on a growing number of such people. A necessary condition for this was the great increase in universities, their staff and students, in the 1960s and 1970s as tertiary education was provided for a third or more of the relevant age group. The study of history, particularly Australian history and including labour history, was carried forward on this tide. The times were right for it. Despite some of my hopes, the Labour History Society remained principally a body run by university staff. I am referring here to the executive committee and journal in Canberra, not so much to the branches. Probably a majority of the subscribers were university educated. I should not be disappointed with that. It demonstrated the extent to which Labour History won a hold on the intelligentsia and the common ground between professional historians and an outside readership. The National University, where the Labour History Society was located, grew rapidly.
I have previously mentioned the number of staff and students who came there. It attracted postgraduates interested in labour history, with Bob Gollan, myself, later John Merritt and others offering supervision for them. Canberra became a destination for many of the brightest and the best. Helping them is a happy memory for me, and I share pride in their achievements. They supported the society and worked for it, even when hard pressed with theses, and became emissaries for it when they departed to jobs elsewhere. At other universities too, a similar process took place. These developments in education were underpinned by an expanding economy which called for a more educated workforce and civil society, and which provided full employment and economic improvement for 20 years. National confidence and maturity showed in all cultural and intellectual fields. In some ways the hopes of post-war reconstruction were realised materially to lay finally the spectre of the 1930s depression. Psychologically, a firm Australianness reinvigorated both those born here and new arrivals. These results were not the product of any program of social justice, but the mundane operations of a mixed economy in which the profit motive was dominant. Conservative politics, whatever the party label, prevailed from 1949 until the early 1970s. The Cold War in which the Australian Governments’ aligned wholeheartedly with the United States gave a hard edge to the political conflicts, one outcome being the continued repression of the left.
The conflicts were at their height in the 1950s at the time of the Petrov Commission, and a split in the Labor Party. A Democratic Labor Party was formed, the trade unions became a battleground of ideologies, the industrial groups targeting any kind of socialists as well as communists, and the divisions running through the whole of the labour movement. The power of the state was brought to bear in this political contest. ASIO, the political police arm of the Menzies Government, was a pervasive threat. In my own case, surveillance of me was extraordinarily detailed as shown even by the scant records now available to me under Freedom of Information procedures. They confirm what I then assumed, that my phone was tapped, my family and friends investigated, work colleagues used as informers, and potential employers warned that I was a ‘security risk’ in the term of the day. The purpose was to intimidate and isolate the subject. This atmosphere persisted in the 1960s when the Labour History Society was formed. Active workers in labour history risked being branded by association. The society, founded by committed socialists, had always to be careful to be open to all views and to avoid any political disputes – not easy when past disputes were much of its subject matter, and present politics the concern of many of its members.
The other side of this era of conservative politics, complacent conformity and repression, was the opposition to it which appeared in many ways. Calls by various progressive groups for a more tolerant and open society, for social justice, women’s rights and recognition of Aborigines continued. The Cold War brought into being the peace movement, calls for nuclear disarmament and a more independent Australia. All these actions of dissent came together in opposition to the Vietnam War which became a mass movement and by the late 1960s was beginning to dominate politics. The study of labour history had a place in this mosaic of countercultures. It connected directly with many of them and its practitioners were likely to be involved vigorously in several other areas. They were activists who were working practically as well as intellectually, although of course not in the name of the society. The society drew strength from all the lively critical countercultures as the dominant conservative values were challenged. From the mid 1960s, the general name, New Left, was given to the movement of radical criticism which became marked in western societies as the Soviet bloc fossilised, Communist parties split and social democracy proved ineffective. Australia had its own internal causes but was much influenced in the field of history by British debates and European Marxists such as Gramsci and Althusser.
I won’t embark on a full discussion of the intellectual New Left, only observing that it affected the writing of labour history. Humphrey McQueen and Stuart McIntyre, two of its exponents for example, produced influential historical manifestos. This interview is not a comprehensive account of labour history in Australia. I have referred to the articles by Merritt, Gollan, and myself which do this in brief. I am speaking about the Labour History Society in a personal way and my own part in it. The society proved open to the new theories, to be flexible and adaptable in giving them a place. The same applied to what is loosely called the student revolts, signalised by Paris in 1968 and erupting in Australia for a decade. The Labour History Society drew vitality from the generation of student protest and from the New Left, as many of them moved into labour history. The first half of the 1970s marked the culmination of many influences. The coming to power of the Whitlam Government and the whole change of atmosphere which accompanied it has been described as the end of the ice age for the Australian left. It went much wider and more deeply than a change of government. This was a time of high excitement and political involvement for many members of the Labour History Society. I can cite my own experiences to exemplify the atmosphere.
On the night of the 25th January 1972, a handful of young Aborigines arrived at my door, driven from Sydney by a white supporter who believed I would help them. They said they wanted to pitch a tent outside Parliament House and camp there until Aborigines were granted land rights. They had no tent so for the time being they took a beach umbrella, some bedding and food. I admired their courage but doubted their success. The next day, Australia day, the Aboriginal Embassy was in the news, and white Australians began to hear about land rights.
When I had worked at Armidale in Northern New South Wales, I had seen the degradation in which the Aborigines lived on the old rubbish dump, sheltering in humpies of rusted corrugated iron amid swarms of flies. I joined the decent people who tried to help them with housing and schooling, but always I felt that this charity was no answer and hoped that someday the Aboriginal people would be able to stand up and fight for themselves. I was pleased to see that now and to help by providing a base at which they could rest and wash and clean their clothes and bring reinforcements for their vigil.
During this year, 1972, I was elected Dean of the Faculty of Arts by my fellow staff, the first non-professorial Dean of the university. For several years, student assemblies, protests and occupations had demanded fundamental changes in teaching curriculum and staff student relations. I proposed to meet these demands sympathetically and to democratise the faculty by giving greater voice to all staff equally, thus reducing the power of each professor to rule his own domain. This program was resisted by the top management of the university, and resented by most of the professoriate, including some luminaries of the left who saw their own authority being reduced. Given the intricacies and innate conservatism of university power structures, much was achieved in new teaching methods, the subjects offered, the initiatives allowed to junior staff, and consultation with students in teaching and assessment. It was a demanding task at a critical time when such changes were possible. This took much of my attention and I continued to be active in university affairs to follow it through. In the same year, I was arrested and charged with handing out a leaflet inciting young men not to register for the national service call up. This was a deliberate defiance of the Government’s conscription for the Vietnam war, carrying a sentence of up to 12 months’ jail. As an ex-serviceman of the Second World War, I felt a duty to oppose the flag waving jingos and the professional patriots of the RSL, so I was arrested with others.
The case was adjourned since the Government did not want to provoke publicity by jailing us, which it would take rather than pay a fine, but could not back down by letting us go free. I began to wonder whether the end of the year faculty meeting at which the Dean had to certify the examination results would have to be held in Goulburn gaol. The Whitlam Government, when elected, dropped the charges. The long campaign against the Vietnam war was vindicated. I wanted to talk about the stirring times of the 1970s because most people in the Labour History Society were touched by them. It was a fruitful time for the society, as for all of the left. When I was tracing the themes which the society pursued in its special issues of the journal, I referred to the issues on strikes in 1973, women in 1975 and racism in 1978 – all successful and important publications. A further special issue, What Rough Beast, published in 1982 was significant for its authors who collectively titled themselves The Sydney History Group. They examined the institutions of the state in Australia through studies of Catholics, Aborigines, prisons and asylums, families, philanthropy, government repression, sexuality and the social order. They were heirs to the New Left, finding their feet through labour history and they would become prominent in the next decade. This special issue was produced outside Canberra, organised by John Merritt and Ann Curthoys.
During the 1970s I had less time to give to the Labour History Society, but we had many helpers. Student enrolments and staff at the National University grew then stabilised. The newcomers were welcomed. John Merritt as editor was assisted by an editorial board of about half a dozen which spread the work and was selected to give a voice to new ideas about content and treatment. Thus Labour History never became hidebound but was always able to change with the times and to make a place for articles which broke new ground. In this period universities were hard pressed to keep pace with expansion but morale was high and staff were confident of the future. For the first time, departments were provided with adequate administrative personnel and research assistants which made the running of the society more efficient and less of an out of hours burden. Amongst them I should mention Paddy Morn and Christine Wise to whom we were particularly indebted. I was no longer the point of reference for most of the society matters so I will not attempt to chronicle the society in detail. I am conscious too that I have not done justice to a large number of helpers who sustained the society at that time. John Merritt would be best placed to speak about this period, and perhaps someday he will be persuaded to do so, particularly since the journal, Labour History, continued its success under his editorship.
At the general meeting of the society in 1984, I presided and John Merritt moved that we examine whether the headquarters of the society should be located elsewhere at Melbourne, Sydney or Wollongong. We had decided in principle that it must be moved or it would begin to decline, but we did not want to risk it being disrupted by the change. After much investigation, Ken Buckley and Greg Patmore were able to arrange a satisfactory base in Sydney. The transition was completed smoothly in 1986 and a new stage, and an eminently successful one, began in the life of the society. My last involvement was to plan and carry out the transfer physically and admistratively. The financial reserves which we had built up were sufficient to meet the expenses and to give the society a firm start in its new home. For a few years I continued as an office bearer to pass on experience and to ensure continuity, but I was resolved that in no circumstance would I hang around when my effective role was done. Ten years after this transfer, it was time for others to begin to tell the story and weigh the results of that decade.
I have said most of the things which I want to say in this kind of narrative about my 25 years or so with the Labour History Society. The society had become a force in Australian history, its journal, Labour History, beyond the 50th issue had extended its scope to express new views and contemporary concerns, winning support by the quality and vitality of its articles. The branches of the society had developed, bringing many members into active participation. Much had been done to encourage the preservation of records, sponsor publications and foster public interest. International contacts had been established and grown. If one unifying theme could be found in all this activity and in the motives of those who carried it out, I would say that it was a desire to understand the past in order to act on the present and to shape the future. Throughout was the belief that the point of philosophy or history was to change the world in some degree to improve it. For myself, the fondest memories are of the people with whom I worked, the multitude of comrades who shared in a collective enterprise. I greet them all and believe that we have something to show for our endeavours.