2001 ASSLH Conference – Labour history and the new millennium

Keynote address

Joy Damousi
Department of History, University of Melbourne


As definitions of the “the left” and “labour” have shifted in response to changing political agendas, labour history has also embraced the history of cultural diversity and of difference. In this paper, I argue that the tensions between writing about class politics and cultural and identity politics are not irreconcilable. Drawing on my recent research on the politics of grief, I argue that one example where cultural and economic injustice intersect is in the realm of the history of emotions. The expression of grief and emotional life in the public arena in recent times has raised the question of the politics of emotions. This has become especially pertinent in relation to the stolen generation, but also relates to issues of sexuality, in terms of AIDS politics and gender in relation to relinquishing mothers, all of which are underpinned by economic injustice.

In answer to the question “what is labour history”, posed in 1967 in a symposium of the same name, one of the discipline’s leading exponents, Eric Fry, responded with a three-fold answer. It was, he believed, “the history of a social class, particularly concerned with the structure of society and the changes in it”,1 and was controversial because it “breaks new ground”.2

It is timely in this year, almost forty years since the birth of the journal Labour History, that we should reflect on Fry’s characterisation of the discipline he helped to build. Much has happened, of course, to transform the very approach of labour history itself. The fiery debates about the meaning of class, the disagreements of where power lies in society and how to define it, and the disapproval of some of the new post-modern directions, have mirrored the ruptures within the historical profession at large. Labour history has been perhaps more vulnerable to changing political climates and agendas, as its very identity was formed through a particular junction of politics and vision of social change. Within a volatile academic climate, labour historians have according to Verity Burgmann, been better than most in responding to “external political realities”, because “they had always been a more political and radical species of historian”.3

It is the understanding of the “political” and the “radical”, in the context of writing history in the twenty-first century, that provides the stimulus for this paper. Caught in the present cross-fire between those who claim a space for identity politics, and those who argue for a return to class and economics as the main purpose of our inquiry, there is no safe ground for labour history. One way forward, I wish to argue, is to consider how some theorists—such as Nancy Fraser—have combined what she terms the “politics of recognition”, enunciated through social movements, with the “politics of redistribution” which takes up questions of economic injustice.

Beyond this, I wish to take the discussion one step further. Drawing on Fraser’s formulation, but also keeping in mind Eric Fry’s broad perspective on the history of class, shifting structure of society and conceiving of different ways of conceptualising these changes, the final section of this paper will attempt to explore how the politics of grief and the politics of emotions can suggest new directions. If “class” is understood not only as a location within the economic and social structure, but is also identified as a lived, personal and intimate experience, then issues of dignity and the self must come to our attention. A history of politics which emerges from emotional alienation—where the personal “injuries of class”4 are made political—is a history that might fulfil Fry’s challenging yet at times most elusive edict: that labour history “breaks new ground”.

Such reconsiderations were a world away during the heyday of labour history a quarter century ago. It is to this time of promise, hope and optimism that I now turn, as a way of contextualising more recent debates, where the very meaning of labour history has become far less certain.

Old Left and the New Left

Even from labour history’s early conception, “class” was understood in different ways by different practitioners. Its meanings and application was the source of lively and continuous debate. All agreed that class was the defining category of labour history, of socialist politics and the motor of social and political change. This was a radical project in the Liberal supremacy of the 1950s and 1960s, and its purpose was tied explicitly to the politics of the day. It was with some matter of urgency that Robin Gollan insisted in his first editorial that labour history be of “immediate practical value” to the labour movement and that “past experience, of success and failures can provide guide posts for present and future actions”.5 His clarion call spawned union histories, histories of the labour parties, biographies of labour and socialist agitators, and studies of the various ideological currents which shaped the philosophical and intellectual traditions of the Australian labour movement. In the process, the journal Labour History, in John Merritt’s estimation, “quickly established itself as an academic journal of some standing”.6

Terry Irving, another participant at the 1967 symposium, was less convinced that labour historians had what he termed a solid grasp of class, or of class relations. “Why should the working class be separately studied?”, he asked. Australian labour historians, he insisted, “have not produced one jot or title of evidence…to show that they understand the concept of class”. “[W]age-earners they understand; antagonism between social groups they think they understand. That “class may not exist even when these two phenomena are present, Australian labour historians do not appear to understand”.7

In demanding attention to these questions, Irving was foreshadowing the criticisms that would soon be hurled at the founding fathers of labour history—the Old Left—by the younger sons who rebelled against them under the banner of the New. Irving himself would take this inquiry further. In 1980, he and RW Connell published Class Structure in Australian History, one of the few attempts to apply an explicitly class analysis to Australia’s past.

Their study attempted to bring to fruition the criticism which the New Left so abrasively made of its predecessors. Class should not be taken as given, or as a structural category, Connell and Irving argued. These are “real groups of flesh-and blood people”. “To understand a class fully”, they wrote, “is to be concerned with the structure of situations: their limitations, their intractability; and their potential for fundamental change…”8 Earlier, in A New Britannia, Humphrey McQueen had accused the Old Left of misunderstanding the working classes and stressed that class should be understood as consciousness and through inter-class conflict. Stuart Macintyre found fault with the methodology of historians such as Russel Ward, which he believed was “overlaid with a residue of bourgeois liberal morality” and was a “manifestation of bourgeois hegemony”. It was the wider relationships between classes that needed to be addressed. According to Macintyre, the task of any Marxist historian

should be the analysis of the full complexity of class oppression and this cannot be achieved by considering class by itself -it must involve a consideration of class relations.9

It was the totality of society that needed to be understood. In the context of the heady days of national liberation struggles and student unrest, the strategy adopted by the Old Left was condemned as irrelevant to the prevailing revolutionary struggle. Moreover, class was a relationship which people created and reproduced. In the words of the most famous exponent of this view,
EP Thompson,

the notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship…we cannot have two distinct classes, each with an independent being, and then bring them into relationship with each other…Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms.10

Class then, was perceived as the product of the political and cultural as well as an economic process.

Emergence of social history

It was within this context—the need to expand labour history to include the history of societies, and to consider the ways in which societies were interconnected—that labour history became “the social history of labour”.11 The project remained overtly political, and the aim was to guide social and political practice, which meant moving away from the institutional base of labour. This shift was inclusive of gender, race, and sexuality, reflecting the emergence of the new and exciting social movements of the 1970s and 1980s. The key to social history was to understand society through a whole range of forces. As Merritt put it, labour history as such was perceived as “too narrow in its scope or too limited in its methodology to have any chance of comprehending the complexities of social process”. Social history was less directed by the revolutionary praxis, but did attempt to show the interconnectedness of class with other oppressive structures. Labour historians followed this cue. They broadened their analysis, sought connections beyond that of class and as Burgmann observes, showed how “labour history could not only become a form of social history but could also inform other social history”.12

During the 1980s, it seemed possible to integrate the various webs of oppression into a coherent prospect of liberation. But this proved to be a fragile edifice. With post-modern theories, and the emergence of difference, fragmentation and multiplicity as political catch-cries which displaced the coherent call of collective labour, it seemed that labour historians no longer had a monopoly on the “oppressed, exploited and under-privileged”.13 The groups who now claimed recognition did not always possess a class status. Their claims arose from sexuality, race and gender. The politics of difference and recognition began to shape the writing of history in ways that seemed for the next generation of historians, more radical and more political.

Post-modernism/identity politics

Labour history was challenged next by postmodern theorists, some of whom brought into question the very usefulness of class as a category of historical analysis. As we moved through the 1990s, class became increasingly understood through a different set of theoretical categories of language, discourse, identity and agency. Controversially, historians such as Patrick Joyce and Joan Scott attempted to integrate post-modernist theory into their labour histories. In his 1991 publication, Visions of the People, Joyce began his study with the title, “beyond class?”. Class definitions now centred on linguistic interpretations. Joyce identified his project as the “language…about class”,14 where he aimed to challenge “linear notions of class development”.15 He believed class should be seen less “as objective reality than as a social construct, created differently by different historical actors…[it] is in fact not prior to…language but is actively constituted by language”.16 Later he argued that class, like any other collective “social” subject, “is seen to be an imagined form, not something given in a “real” world beyond this form”.17 The emphasis of his study was on subjectivity, experience, identity and the history of the self.18 Like his predecessors on the New Left, Joyce believed he was writing “radical” history by adopting new theoretical approaches.

Joan Scott, too, identified the language of class as a key way of further politicising labour history. She argued from a gendered perspective that “the gendered representation of class…was a factor in the ways women participated in [the Chartist] movement and in the ways general programs and politics addressed them”.19 The gender biased analysis that had informed class considerations was a glaring oversight by her labour colleagues. Scott argued that languages of class were “complicated, heterogeneous, and variable”. They were, however,

indisputably gendered, resting as they did on explicit appeals to nature and implicit evocations (not consciously intended) of sexual difference. We cannot understand how concepts of class acquired legitimacy and established political movements without examining concepts of gender…There is no choice between a focus on class or on gender; each is necessarily incomplete without the other.20

In questioning our very understanding of class in these ways, Scott and Joyce adopted an approach which antagonised historians of all political persuasions. The enterprise now became one which attempted to understand class not as given, but as “unstable, open to context and redefinition”. Its very meanings was “always potentially in flux”. This approach also applied to identities and experiences, which were, it was argued, “variable phenomena…discursively organised in particular contexts”.21 The contingency of class experience annunciated in these histories undermined understanding of class as a coherent motor of social change.

Within these new approaches and in more broader terms, many labour historians no longer aimed to produce a score card of successes and failures of past struggles. Nor did these histories intend to instruct future behaviour. As Macintyre argues in the case of the Communist Party, Communists used “the past for inspiration and instruction. Such works typically distinguish truth from error by demonstrating the perfidy of reformists and revisionists, and extolling the heroic efforts of the faithful”. The aim here was to establish “a lineage of correct theory and practice that provides a warrant for future success”.22 In his work, he attempted rather to “evoke the milieu of Australian communism…to stand outside it and grasp it as a historical phenomenon”.23 Perhaps Macintyre’s most radical departure from earlier histories of institution and instruction has been his success in humanising communism. In stressing the experience of party members and capturing their “foibles and idiosyncrasies, in order to suggest the diversity of human qualities that lay behind the hard outer shell”,24 Macintyre manages to encapsulate class as a personalised experience, in ways unimagined by his predecessors.

The fragmentation of class and the ascendancy of identity politics, has aroused antagonism from those who believe that Marxist and economic definitions need to be reintroduced into class analysis and within radical historical writing. Verity Burgmann champions this position in claiming class as the key category of analysis. For Burgmann, Marxism retains its centrality in political activism and in questions of social change. Not only does she try to reclaim it as the central category but takes the argument further by stating that identity politics is compatible with capitalism. “Identity politics is better understood”, she claims, “as an effect of, rather than an alternative to, postmodern late capitalism”.25

Indeed, for Burgmann, “new social movements, identity politics and the politics of recognition are now more obviously compatible with capitalism”.26 In defending the use of class in its Marxist mode and arguing for its usefulness, she attacks those radical intellectuals who “discarded class analysis and Marxism, and discovered identity politics and the rhetorics of difference”. She rightly points out that class is “still the primary determinant of cultural and political behaviour”, but the challenge remains how this analysis can be integrated with a recognition of cultural movements.27

Nancy Fraser

Theorists such as Nancy Fraser have recently attempted to integrate these two positions. In arguing for a combination of the politics of recognition and a politics of redistribution, Fraser takes the debate in an engaging and fruitful direction. She attempts to forge a combination of the two issues rather than emphasise the differences between them.

For Fraser, the “struggle for recognition” is fast becoming the paradigmatic form of political conflict in the late twentieth century. Demands of groups under the banners of nationalism, ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality—that is cultural domination—have supplanted exploitation as the fundamental injustice.28 Fraser argues as others did before her, that current methods of political analysis within the left need to be revised for the current political climate, in the “wake of 1989” and in the context of delegitimation.29 In what she terms the “post-socialist” condition, claims of the “recognition of group difference” have “eclipsed claims for social equality”. In the late twentieth century, the “rise of identity politics” and the “decentring of class” have become dominant. The most “salient” social movements are no longer those identified by class but rather are culturally defined groups, who defend their identities to win “recognition”.30 The political options are presented as either class politics or identity politics, either social politics or cultural politics, either equality or difference, either redistribution or recognition.31 These dichotomies are not a way forward, and in her view, “claims for recognition can be integrated with claims for distribution in a comprehensive political project”.32

She cites the example of sexuality. Its “roots do not lie in the political economy because homosexuals are distributed throughout the class structure…their mode of collectivity is that of a despised sexuality, rooted in the cultural…structure of society”. From this point of view, the injustice homosexuals suffer is “a matter of recognition”. With this, we see their sexuality thus disparaged, homosexuals are subject to shaming, harassment, discrimination, and violence, while being denied legal rights and equal pretections—all fundamentally denial of recognition. But they also suffer economic discriminations, and are denied the same benefits as heterosexuals.33 In arguing along these lines, Fraser’s aim is one of “coalition building”, and34 “arriving at a framework that is adequate to the demands of our age”.35

Politics and emotional life

In order to consider how we might develop such a framework, we need to return to the thorny question of class definitions. I agree with Burgmann that class is economically based, essential in any analysis and an indispensable category in historical work. But in these debates, where at times artificial polarisations emerge, the commonality of purpose is often lost. In the analysis that follows I want to illustrate the importance of considering class in broader terms. Moreover, it is not the separation of class from other forms of oppression I would want to stress here, but rather the synergy of class with other elements—that is—its interconnectedness, its merging with different aspects of oppression.

It is neither radical or new to talk about “class” as a lived experience, that embodies personal, intimate and emotional aspects. To discuss class in these terms is to return to Thompson’s understanding that class is lived as much as it is an economic category. But what I would stress is that the personal experience of class embodies more than structural determinations, and it does more than “fix external structures of social life”. The need to consider language, subjectivity and self that post-structuralists have alerted us to is not necessarily a bad thing. Opening up ideas about class in these terms has certainly complicated our understanding of how class is manifested socially and psychologically.

In order to accommodate both culture and economics, material considerations as well as cultural oppressions, I wish to stress that class needs to be perceived as “personally constitutive as well as regulatory”. Class is personal as well as economic. We experience class emotionally as well as materially, and this experience is “shaped and reshaped by an emotional self”.

In other words, I wish to challenge the view that a study of subjectivity, emotions and the self will, as some argue, inevitably led to a benign universalism which masks the exploitation of class relations. On the contrary, I think that this perspective enhances our understanding of the very nature of class dynamics. Emotional trauma emanating from material deprivation can often be the catalyst that creates the political conditions whereby class identity shifts to being “of itself” to “for itself”.

The feminist slogan, the “personal is political”, explicitly informs these arguments, with the “personal” in this context embodying not only issues of sexuality but also emotional life. The politics articulated in response to a system that is often dehumanising and humiliating, is invariably framed in terms of dignity and self-respect. The impetus for political, structural, legislative and economic reforms often comes from what Sennet and Cobb have long identified as the “injuries of class”.

In The Public Emotions: From Mourning to Hope, Graham Little exhorted his readers to learn about the importance of “emotional literacy, about becoming better at recognising what’s happening emotionally both to us personally and in the public world around us”.36 It is this aspect of class—its emotional alienation—as well as material deprivation that could further our understanding of labour and of history in the early twenty-first century. Historical shifts in the public arena have allowed for an expression of such politics.

I have argued elsewhere that there has been a discernible shift at the end of the twentieth century towards emotional openness, and a return to a nineteenth-century frankness in mourning and grief.37 Others have conceptualised this shift in terms of an emergence of a “pathological public sphere” in the late twentieth century, where individual and collective trauma and loss have found increasing expression and legitimacy in the public arena, exposed through media such as television.38 In recent times, the media has played a central role in collapsing the public and private spheres, with the increasing role of the visual media in particular in daily reporting trauma and tragedy, and so publicising grief.39 In the late twentieth century there has been the connection between expression of grief and emotions in the public sphere and political mobilisation. The public and the private are no longer the monolithic, distinctive and sharp spheres they once seemed to be: the private has not only become political, but the political has become private. The internet and television have in recent times challenged what is private and what is public. All forms of the media now shape our identities and sense of our selves in extraordinarily influential ways. Ideas and notions about the public sphere have moved from the nineteenth century concept and rhetoric of the “public” being the realm of restraint and decorum in commerce, politics and the domain of public men, into something far more all embracing, intrusive, fluid and contingent. The convergence of the public and the private is of course a quintessential defining moment of post-modernity.

As Mark Seltzer has argued, the public sphere has become the repository of a variety of pathologies and anxieties— what he refers to as traumatic wounds—in ways which have not been evident in the past. Seltzer’s claims we need to consider within the collapse of the private and the public the notion of trauma as a “switch point between individual and collective, private and public orders of things”.40 “The wound”, he claims, has become one way of “crossing point of private fantasy and collective space”41 and the ways in which the “culture of suffering, states of injury” have emerged as a public spectacle in recent times.42

It is the public expression of private class wounds that labour historians could embrace within their understanding of “politics”. In contemporary life, it is of course nothing new for communities, to be mobilised through political action through expressions of grief and anger. The history of coalmining communities—as an example—is studded with such instances. Individual experiences of the loss of dignity and of trauma is encapsulated in the poem by Jock Graham, a miner who lost a leg in a pit accident. He writes:

I hear things strangely in my little room
By night when mournful memories haunt my mind…
machines and shovels deafen til the burst
And storm of stone and coal disturb my sleep…
I dream of pit shafts yawning dark and deep,
And old mates gather from the grim Red Roll:
their torsos bare and bruised with falls of coal—
I stretch my hands aloft to them—and weep.

In such communities it was often the wives and mothers who experienced trauma at the loss of her husbands and sons. Winifred Mitchell writes of the coal-mining accidents that devastated coal mining communities in Australia. In 1902 the Mt Kembla mining disaster claimed 96 men, leaving 32 widows, and “almost every home…suffered a bereavement. In one case a woman lost fourteen relatives, including her second husband…Another, who had lost a son four years before, lost another son as well as her husband”.43

Such events are not only of the past. Compared to the situation one hundred years ago, traumas now find widespread and legitimate public expression in the media, and such expressions of grief often become a force for politicisation. About a month ago, Jane Carrick, the mother of Anthony Carrick, a young working-class man from Sunshine, who, in 1999, was crushed to death by a five-tonne concrete panel, wrote in the Age of the impact that the death of her 18 year old son had on her and her family. Since his death she wrote,

my family and I have gone to hell and back. We have experienced the worst kind of pain, suffering an emotional trauma, and continue to do so…Two years later we still haven’t learnt how to live without him, and I think we never will.

The court decision was handed down in March this year that the company concerned—Drybulk Pty Ltd—be charged with breaches of the Occuaptional Health and Safety Act and be given minimal fines, which amounted to $65,000. Carrick wrote that she “felt betrayed, and I know so many other grieving families feel the same”. The nature of death influenced a particular grief and expression of it:

Industrial death is like no other death and should not be treated the same way. We didn’t get to say goodbye. Anthony went off to work in the morning and never came home again. Anthony would have been better off robbing banks than working for a living. At least he would still be alive.

I feel lost, abandoned and betrayed.

What traumatised this mother was the loss of her son, but her grief was soon politicised through this experience.44 Carrick challenged attempts to marginalise or trivialise her son’s experience and she attempted to claim a political place for her anguish. In passionate and emotive terms, Carrick argued for the implementation of more health and safety laws, and more inspectors. Its time, she argued, “the courts started to get serious…In the past 18 months, in more than 90 successful prosecutions over the workplace deaths or serious injuries, fewer than 10 have had fines of more than $50,000 imposed. It doesn’t send a strong message to employers. Many will continue to treat workers with contempt if the price of a death is on $50,000. It isn’t good enough”. She called for judges to be educated, for minimum fines to be imposed when death or serious injury is involved, and for the financial viability of the company to be a factor in setting the fine. Fines should be the “personal responsibility of company directors”.45 The powerlessness and alienation was evident in her impassioned plea: “My son has been killed on his first day on the job, at the tender age of 18, and on one with the power to do something seems to care”.

Stolen generation

There is no more telling example in contemporary life, of the emotional anguish of private loss being politicised in the public arena than the trauma associated with the stolen generation. In Aboriginal communities, trauma is at the heart of politics. After all, the 26th of January 1938 was proclaimed a “day of mourning and protest”. This is also reflected in a pamphlet written by Jack Patten and William Ferguson at the time to exhort white Australians to consider the impact of white invasion. It is the “degrading and humiliating” experience of extermination that they emphasise in their demands for human rights.46

The impact of such “humiliation and degradation” needs to be considered not only from a class point of view, but also from a gender and race perspective. This emotional and psychological question should also concern labour historians because it is a powerful effect of these repressions. We could use the example here of Aboriginal mothers who were forced to relinquish their children. As Peter Read notes, the focus has been on the experiences of removed children rather than on their parents. Mothers, in particular, suffered agonies of not knowing the whereabouts of their children, and having them forcibly removed.47 The anguish and trauma of their grief is unfathomable.

In a report in the Australian a few weeks ago, the headline, “mothers of sorrow”, reiterated this anguish. The report noted how guilt “for having their children taken had been borne, strangely by the mothers”, but it is their story that is the “missing link in the stolen generations story”. We need to take this trauma into account. It is crucial that we document how, for instance, Aboriginal mothers whose children where taken at the Phillips Creek mission, north of Tennant Creek, left immediately after the children were taken and “spent the next few months north at Attack Creek, holding a “sorry camp” cutting themselves and grieving”. It is also important for labour historians to consider how this grief and anguish has further politicised claims for reconciliation.48

Relinquishing mothers

In another context, white mothers who relinquished their children under pressure from the 1950s, through to the 1970s, have repressed a mourning and loss which has only recently found public expression. In attempting to claim a place for their anger, resentment and pain, these mothers have mobilised to gain compensation and retribution for the trauma of giving up a child, at a time when society deemed them inadequate mothers. In the NSW parliamentary inquiry into adoptive practices between 1950-1998, entitled Releasing the Past, one woman told the Committee conducting the inquiry that :

My anger is such that I demand that all persons who were part of this conspiracy face criminal proceedings, and that they be made to pay victims compensation.49

Other women requested financial compensation for “the money spent on counselling costs in the post-adoption period”. Another mother testified that since the “forced adoption” of her son in 1974:

I have spent many years and much money seeing psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors, private counsellors, alternative practices. I would have liked some compensation for these costs incurred due to losing my son.50

Many of these women were from the working-class who did not have the means of support to rear a child, but not all were deprived materially. It was the “labour” of grief and loss, that had a devastating impact on some of these women. A mother who relinquished her child in 1970 explained that she is “never free of feeling of loss”, and that the “years of unresolved grief are extracting a very considerable price for me”. Another told the Committee that “[m]y life in the last 25 years has been profoundly effected because of this. I have suffered depression, alcoholism, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts”.51 The Committee recommended that the NSW government “should issue a statement of pubic acknowledgment that past adoptive practices were misguided and have [caused]…lasting suffering for many mothers, fathers, adoptees and their families”.52

It is telling that these examples are all of mothers. As childbearers who are still predominantly responsible for the domestic sphere, mothers carry the emotional wounds of what has been deemed the private arena—of issues relating to children and family. These not only pertain to material deprivation, but also to emotional scarring that often leads to the politicisation of issues relating to the “private”.

My final example takes us away from this aspect, but further indicates the need to consider how politics, grief and economics are inter-related.


The question of sexuality has also drawn out these themes. Again, in recent times the issue of sexuality and economics has come to the surface with the fierce debate over the Victorian State government’s relationship bill, which would grant same-sex couples equal rights to heterosexual couples in areas such as wills, superannuation, property transfers and medical treatment.

It has been the issue of AIDS in particular which has focussed the discussion on grief and how it has generated a particular politics. Judith Butler explores how a language has evolved from the AIDS experience and examines the politicisation of a hitherto private emotion—grief—and its public and political expression. That AIDS continues to be the most explicit expression of this process, comes as no surprise. Sexual epidemics have often been seen as “apocalyptic forms of sexual anarchy”.53 As others have argued, both syphilis and AIDS have generated “moral panic” at the ends of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The two ages of venereal peril have striking parallels, as themes of sin and guilt. Punishment and retribution resonate within the discourses in both cases.54 As Gary Dowsett notes of the more recent epidemic, the “costs of…HIV…to the gay communities have been enormous. Over 3000 gay men have died in Australia so far, accounting for 84 per cent of the deaths from AIDS, and it is known that at least 10,000 gay men have been infected with HIV since the epidemic began”.55 Butler observes that

Gay melancholia…also contains anger that can be translated into political expression. It is precisely to counter this pervasive cultural risk of gay melancholia…that there has been an insistent publicization and politicisation of grief over those who have died from AIDS. The Names Project Quilt is exemplary, ritualising and repeating the name itself as a way of publicly avowing limitless loss.56

In these instances of class, race, sexuality and gender, the politics of grief have been a driving influence on the marshalling and political mobilisation of emotions. The “labour” is that of loss and trauma; its political essence has derived from a complex web of inequalities. This sort of emphasis forces us to broadening our understandings of what is “political”; to consider how organisation is driven so often from the politics of indignity and humiliation; and that “labour” and “class” need to include the personal and emotional. Whilst I am particularly concerned with the working- classes here, it should be noted that tragedy and trauma are not of course confined to them. Ruling-class trauma—a contradiction in terms for some—I agree needs to be brought into the equation if we are to continue the project of studying class-relations and not one class in isolation. Nor does a sense of deprivation necessarily lead to mobilisation on the left. We only have to look at what Judith Brett terms the “politics of resentment” espoused by Pauline Hanson to see how personal indignation and bitterness amongst some of the lower middle-classes translates into a politics of right wing hate. These aspects enhance the argument that emotional and political life are intertwined.

In a piece entitled “What’s left of the Left”, Eric Hobsbawm notes that single-issue movements such as the women’s movement and the environmental movement “belong to what could be called the Left continuum”.57 That continuum, and the various moments that appear on it, need to be perceived as a strength and not a weakness if labour history is again to occupy the radical and oppositional status it assumed in the latter half of the last century. Looking at the impact of various oppressions is also crucial. In the present convergence of the private and the public, we also need to claim a place for the importance of the psychology of class, if you like, because to do so is to engage in a broader project of acknowledging loss and grief as a part of Australian history, and, therefore Australian identity. And that is political.


1 E.C. Fry, “Symposium: What Is Labour History?, Labour History, no. 12, May 1967, p.64.
2 ibid., p.62.
3 Verity Burgmann, “The Strange Death of Labour History”, in Bede Nairn and Labour History: Labour History Essays: Volume 3, Sydney, Pluto Press, 1991, p. 71.
4 See Richard Sennet and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class, New York, Vintage, 1973, pp.3-50.
5 Quoted in John Merritt, “Labour History”, in G. Osborne and W.F. Mandle (eds) New History: Studying Australia Today, Sydney, Allen and Unwin,1982, p. 118.
6 ibid., p. 120.
7 T.H. Irving, “What Is Labour History: A Symposium”, op.cit., p.77.
8 R.W. Connell and T. Irving, Class Structure in Australian History: Documents, Narrative and Argument, Sydney, Longmans Chesire, 1980, p.7.
9 Stuart Macintyre, “Radical History and Bourgeois Hegemony”, Intervention, no.2, 1972, p.66.
10 E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working-Class, London, Penguin, 1963/1981, pp. 8-9.
11 Verity Burgmann, “The Strange Death of Labour History”, p.70.
12 ibid., p.76.
13 Merritt, op.cit., p.139.
14 Patrick Joyce,Visions of the People : Industrial England and the Question of Class, 1848-1914, New York : Cambridge University Press, 1991, p.2
15 ibid., p.3.
16 ibid., p.9.
17 Patrick Joyce, Democratic Subjects : The Self and the Social in Nineteenth Century England, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.1.
18 ibid.
19 Joan Scott, “On Language, Gender, and Working-Class History”, Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, Columbia University Press, New York, 1988, p. 63.
20 ibid., p.66.
21 Scott, “Introduction”, op.cit., p.5.
22 Stuart Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia: From Origins to Illegality, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1998, p.4
23 ibid., p.8.
24 ibid.
25 Verity Burgmann, “The Point of Change and the Health of Labour History”, Labour History, no.76, May 1999, p. 177.
26 ibid.
27 Burgmann, “The Point of Change”, p.172
28 Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition, New York, Routledge, 1997, p.11.
29 ibid., , p.1.
30 ibid., p.2.
31 ibid., p.3.
32 ibid., p.3.
33 ibid, p.18.
34 ibid.
35 ibid., p.12.
36 Graham Little, The Public Emotions: From Mourning to Hope, Sydney, ABC Books, 1999, p. 4
37 See Joy Damousi, Living With the Aftermath: Trauma, Nostalgia and Grief in Post-war Australia, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 1-8.
38 Mark Seltzer, “Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere”, October 80, Spring 1997, pp.3-26.
39 See Graham Little, op.cit., p. 11; Mark Seltzer, op.cit., pp.3-26.
40 Seltzer, p.5.
41 Seltzer, p.4.
42 Seltzer, p.25.
43 Winifred Mitchell, “Women in Mining Communities”, in Elizabeth Windscuttle (eds) Women, Class and History: Feminist Perspectives on Australia 1788-1978, Fontana/Collins, Melbourne, 1988, p.159.
44 Age, 22 March 2001, p. 15
45 ibid.
46 Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus, The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights: A Documentary History, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1999, p.83.
47 Peter Read, A Rape of the Soul So Profound: The Return of Stolen Generations, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1999, pp.34-35.
48 Australian, 17 March 2001, p. 24
49 Releasing the Past: Adoption Practices, 1950-1998, NSW Legislative Council, Sydney, NSW State Government, 2000, p.173.
50 ibid, p.174.
51 ibid., p.148.
52 ibid., p.186.
53 Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin De Siecle, London, Penguin, 1990, p.188.
54 ibid., p.188.
55 Gary Dowsett, “Sexual Conduct, Sexual Culture, Sexual Community: Gay Men’s Bodies and AIDS”, in Jill Matthews (ed) Sex in Public: Australian Sexual Cultures, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1997, p.82.
56 Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, California, Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 148.
57 Eric Hobsbawm, The New Century, London, Abucus, 2001, pp.103.