Tribute: a British perspective on Stuart Macintyre

Australians have been paying tribute to Stuart Macintyre as possibly the finest of their country’s historians of recent times. Many make reference to the remarkable range of his interests, from histories of the social sciences, civil liberties and universities to books on historians, colonial liberalism and key national moment of transition and reconstruction. Stuart was the author of volumes of both the Oxford History of Australia and Cambridge concise national histories and a cogent intervention into Australia’s ‘history wars’ of the type we are becoming only too familiar with in Britain. Of special interest to labour historians are Stuart’s two volumes on the history of the Australian communist party, the second of which he had seen through to the press shortly before his death.

Stuart Macintyre, 1947-2021

Stuart is nevertheless best known to British labour historians for two landmark texts on British communism from the beginning of his career: A Proletarian Science and Little Moscows. Both were published in the same year, 1980, but they represented two distinct phases of a project of historical recovery that he had been carrying out over most of the 1970s. He had arrived in Britain in 1972 to write a PhD at Cambridge under the supervision of Henry Pelling. Then aged twenty-five, having written a Masters thesis on John Strachey that is now accessible in the British Library, Stuart was a communist of the post-’68 mould and one of many at that time passing through an astringently Althusserian phase. Other influences would include the at that time flourishing CP Historians’ Group, the movement around History Workshop and later in the decade the Cambridge social history seminar convened by Geoff Eley and Gareth Stedman Jones. His PhD’s working title was ‘Understandings of Marxism in Britain 1917-1940’ and, as he afterwards recorded, few supervisors could have been so temperamentally indisposed to engage with his approach and subject than Pelling. Nevertheless, in an age enthralled by theory and revolutionary romanticism, Pelling’s regard for the archive and empiricist’s eye for spongy generalisation must also have had their value as a counterfoil.

Few historians can have written a better first book than the one that resulted. In A Proletarian Science, Stuart set himself the dual objective of capturing the social basis and the changing doctrinal character of British marxism as inherited by the CPGB on its formation in 1920 and reworked by it in the first decade or so of its existence. By focusing his account on marxism, which he set in a sort of entangled opposition to ‘labour socialism’, Stuart called into question the ‘genetic’ character of a labour history fixated on the seemingly successful and the ‘linear historical process’ by which it was held to prevail. If that sounds more like E.P. Thompson than Althusser, A Proletarian Science can also be seen as a brilliantly evocative exercursion into plebeian ideology in the spirit of Christopher Hill. In a review essay he published in 1979, Stuart wrote of how the finest writings in this tradition had always stopped short of the watershed of 1917, and it was this ‘pre-modern’ agenda that he now brought forward into the years of the communist movement relating to the formative years of working-class politics. The unreflecting reader, of whom the current author was one, did not even dream of Althusser but was swept along as by a World Turned Upside Down somewhat closer to our own times.

Hill would also have cause to write of The Experience of Defeat. Stuart would not have put it so strongly. Nevertheless, when he returned to Britain on a Cambridge fellowship in 1977 he would recall that the optimism of the earlier phase of broad left activism was now draining away. His second project on British communism, extending one of the many sub-themes of A Proletarian Science, was a study of localised militancy in the inter-war period. Like Stedman Jones and John Foster from their very different perspectives, he saw in the local or regional study a way of reaching beyond the limitations of a corporate labour history. His three little Moscows, namely Mardy in the Rhondda, Lumphinnans in Fife and the Vale of Leven, thus served as a structuring theme to explore the interplay of workplace, domestic relations, politics and the local state.

Stuart’s rationale was a ‘counter-factual’ of examining these admittedly atypical cases as a way of isolating what it was exactly that set them apart. Again, this was a work of empathetic reconstruction that reached beyond an institutional history to explore the acknowledged complexities of gender, class, ethnicity and place. Nevertheless, in its acceptance of the notion of exceptionality the challenge to mainstream narratives was significantly attenuated and the overall effect is in many ways more elegiac than combative. Stuart published a summary of his findings in the CP monthly journal Marxism Today two months  before Thatcher’s election. Following on from Hobsbawm’s ‘Forward March of Labour Halted?’ and Stuart Hall’s ‘Great Moving Right Show’, it stands alongside them as an augury of more difficult times to follow.

Stuart returned to Australia in 1979, and this time did not transfer his CP membership on moving between the two countries. It is at this point that his prodigious output of writing on Australian history commences. Nevertheless, there was one last book which, in the spirit of a transnational labour history, is perhaps most appropriately grouped with the two British ones. This was the study of the Fremantle communist militant Paddy Troy which Stuart published in 1984. One of the findings of Little Moscows was that it was almost impossible to specify the economic or social conditions that made for a militant stronghold. The one remaining variable was political activism and the agency of militants moved by communist beliefs and commitments so that each and every communist and Labour College militant, as he put it, was in some sense ‘striving to build a Little Moscow’. There was no reason why this basic insight needed to be confined to the inter-war years or the politics of locality. Stuart thus urged labour historians to move on from their institutional fixations to the ‘actual social dynamics’ of labour movements and through the life-defining commitments of Paddy Troy once more challenged the ‘institutionalised consensus’ of ruling elites in favour of the ‘vigorous tributaries and turbulent eddies’ that unsettled them from below. As he then embarked upon his volume of the Oxford History of Australia, it was having completed a de facto trilogy of communist histories that remain among the outstanding achievements of their time.

A collection of essays on Stuart’s work edited by Peter Beilharz and Sian Supski is to be published by Melbourne University Press in mid-2022. Beyond that necessary engagement with his published work, many can also testify to the generosity Stuart unfailingly showed whether in supporting individual colleagues or in contributing to wider networks and activities. His emails let alone his books were a pleasure to read. Afflicted with colitis, he took solace from his favourite historians – Gibbon, Macaulay, Tawney, Braudel, Bloch – and it was with something of their flair for exposition that he set about his own work. In A Proletarian Science and Little Moscows he has left us a tour de force of the social history of ideas and a pioneering exercise in communist micro-history. We were fortunate that he spent those years in Britain and working on British subjects. He will be sorely missed.

Kevin Morgan is Professor of Politics and History at the University of Manchester.

Tribute: an Australian perspective on Stuart Macintyre by Peter Beilharz and Sian Supski