Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 30 Aug 2022 in Non-Fiction |

PETER BEILHARZ and SIAN SUPSKI (eds) The Work of History: Writing for Stuart Macintyre. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

Tags: / / / / / / / / / / /

These essays are a tribute to one of Australia’s most significant historians, Stuart Macintyre.

Stuart Forbes Macintyre has the distinction of being Australia’s leading historian of the last half century. Born in Melbourne in April 1947, educated at Scotch College, Melbourne University (Bachelor of Arts), Monash University (Master of Arts) and Cambridge University (PhD), he produced an extensive and unparalleled volume of work on Australian history. More importantly, he contributed to the growth of Australian history as a discipline by helping other scholars, supervising their research, providing advice and counsel, and reading and commenting on research drafts. He was also active in what Phillip Deery and Julie Kimber describe as ‘the internal architecture of his profession’, the work of journals and other organisations and outlets associated with the study of Australian history. He was active within the bureaucracy and administration of the University of Melbourne and served on a wide range of history-related bodies, including, from 2015, as Chair of the Heritage Council of Victoria, which identifies and protects places and objects of cultural significance to the State of Victoria.

Stuart Macintyre died in November 2021. I have been told that news of his ill health motivated the production of this book in homage to his invaluable contribution to the study of Australian history. The Work of History contains an introduction by the editors Peter Beilharz and Sian Supski, 27 essays from a range of historians, and a brief response from Macintyre.

In his response Macintyre says:

A number of the contributors express gratitude for my helping them make their way. Such is the nature of a project like this, although I was surprised by the implication that this was unusual.

Beilharz and Supski begin their introduction:

Stuart Macintyre was one of the leading Australian historians of our time. The breadth and quality of his work is exemplary, from labour history in Britain and then Australia to social and general history, social justice, civics and education. He was well known as an enabler, as one who made things happen, as supervisor, editor, adviser and general editor. He was a leading figure of the Melbourne History School but also went his own way. He was a superb writer, a stylist who combined involvement and detachment.

What is most striking about the contributions here is not only the respect afforded to Macintyre, but the affection the writers have for him and the various ways he helped them, both individually and in his example as a shining light aboard the good ship Australian history.

The 16 longer chapters mainly provide a commentary on a major aspect of Macintyre’s research and career. These include an examination of his writings on communist parties in Britain (by Kevin Morgan) and Australia (by Terry Irving), on the Western Australian communist trade unionist Paddy Troy (by Bobbie Oliver), on nineteenth-century Victorian liberal reformers (by Marilyn Lake), and on Australia’s adoption of Arbitration (by Frank Bongiorno), as well as examinations of early bourgeois and radical Australian historians, post-World War II reformers, Australia’s adoption of a welfare state, general Australian histories, the ‘History Wars’ and McIntyre’s approach to scholarship and historiography.

There is also a chapter by literature professor Stephen Knight, who reminisces about his and Macintyre’s times as heads of departments within Melbourne University and their teaching of a joint class on ‘The working class in Literature and History’. They examined such classics as Emile Zola’s Germinal, Jack London’s Iron Heel, George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier and Australian works William Lane’s The Working Man’s Paradise, Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory and Dorothy Hewett’s Bobbin Up.

The 11 shorter chapters are in many ways more interesting than the longer ones. They highlight Stuart Macintyre the person, what it was like to work with him, his attention to detail, his cordiality, friendship, encouragement, ability to get on with people and his preparedness to read and comment on the work of colleagues. He was legendary for his ability to provide detailed and valuable comments on research applications, manuscripts and proofs for publication overnight, and was always available to discuss issues associated with history and scholarship. A busy person, always reading and writing. The only indulgence he seemed to allow himself, beside his pipe, was watching the Hawthorn Football Club.

Macintyre was educated in Australia during the ferment of the late 1960s, the time of the Viet Nam war, conscription, feminism and social change. As he embarked on his career he joined the Communist Party and wrote histories of both the British and Australian parties. On his return to Australia he let his Party membership lapse and became a supporter of the Australian Labor Party. Throughout his career Macintyre was concerned with issues of inequality and social justice, and devoted his life to examining them in Australia.

Despite his early radicalism, his research was based on an implicit model of pluralism, where society involved competition and/or conflict between different individuals and groups over resources, influence and power. Everyone is constrained by everyone else and all struggle to maintain and improve their relative positions. In seeking to understand inequality, Macintyre started with the radical communist parties, then moved on to other, more micro radical groups and individuals, then to the potential and more often than not disappointing role of the ALP (the Hawke-Keating governments’ adoption of neoliberalism), then Federation and Arbitration, the activities of progressive radical liberals both prior to Federation and post World War II reconstruction, which Macintyre described in his book Australia’s Boldest Experiment.

Macintyre arrived in Australia after completing his PhD in the early 1970s and developed a reputation as an enfant terrible for criticising previous Australian historians. The traditional bourgeois historians were too immured in facts, the radicals naïve and theoretically underdeveloped. In time these views mellowed, and he thought more reflexively about the context and times in which both camps conducted their research and reinterpreted their respective contributions as providing foundations for subsequent scholarship. Macintyre devoted much of his research and writing to the role of historical research, the work of universities and others in producing such research, the ‘place’ of history and the social sciences in the university, and participated in the History Wars, essentially disputes over the whitewashing of the treatment of Indigenous Australians and the reality of Australia’s frontier wars.

For Macintyre, historical research was a quest to explain who we are. By ‘knowing’ the past we are able to better understand the present and where we are heading in the future.

As I worked my way through The Work of History I found myself thinking Stuart Macintyre should be regarded as the great entrepreneur of Australian history. Liam Byrne, who first encountered Macintyre as an 18-year-old student, and is now an historian with the Australian Council of Trade Unions, says:

Stuart was not only an historian; he was also an educator. In the true sense of the word. And to understand his career and the influence he had on the study of history in Australia, it is necessary also to appreciate the extraordinary contribution he has made to so many in this capacity. He taught us history, he taught us how to teach, and he taught us how to analyse and question.

Stuart Macintyre’s individual contribution to history is of the highest order. Many a scholar has made outstanding individual contributions, but this is where it starts and finishes. It is in his work for ‘the internal architecture of the profession’ that his major contribution lies. Macintyre saw his role as being to guide and strengthen historical research in Australia. The capital he expended as the great entrepreneur was his knowledge, his intellect, his enthusiasm, his compassion and his humanity. In being attentive to and interested in the work of others he made them feel that they and their research projects were worthwhile and important parts of a significant enterprise. He supervised the work of aspiring historians, a total of 79 PhDs; provided colleagues with advice on both academic and non-academic matters; helped with the production of research grants, journals and publications (editing 26 books, 21 of them co-edited) and fought for the discipline of history on committees and boards at university, educational, cultural and government levels.

Stuart Forbes Macintyre made an invaluable contribution to Australian history, to Australia and our understanding of ourselves. The Work of History: Writing for Stuart Macintyre does him proud.

Peter Beilharz and Sian Supski (eds) The Work of History: Writing for Stuart Macintyre Melbourne University Press 2022 PB 408pp $39.99.

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at Melbourne University who writes on industrial relations, sport and other matters.

You can buy The Work of History from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

If you’d like to help keep the Newtown Review of Books a free and independent site for book reviews, please consider making a donation. Your support is greatly appreciated.