Tribute: an Australian perspective on Stuart Macintyre

Stuart Macintyre died in Melbourne on 22 November 2021. He was one of the leading Australian historians of our times, an inspiring scholar, a culture builder, and endless source of generosity and enthusiasm for the work of history and labour history as well as of the social sciences. A young Althusserian, in the vortex of the British New Left all those years ago, he was a lifelong socialist and labour movement enthusiast. He became known as the leader, but always one among others, of wry humour and the gentle smile, a man taking notes, always seeing possibilities and prospects for good work and better times.

Stuart Macintyre, 1947-2021

He also had a prehistory, or an early history, reaching back to those formative days in Cambridge and to his enthusiasm for British labour history, including the oft occluded story of the Little Moscows and the early intellectual life of the CPGB. These were days when he was advocating the Althusserian revolution in ideas, but simultaneously reveling in the wonders of working class education and self education and self-activity, more in spirit like Thompson or Ranciere or Samuel.  Education and formation were to remain a lifelong concern, right through to his late books on the university system in Australia and its transformation into something a world away from those rough energies of the autodidacts. This also serves to indicate that despite all, Stuart remained a humanist in his thinking, and an advocate of that socialist stream of Enlightenment for which learning is a steady human potential and hope. Think not only of the CPGB but also of the early Fabians, and those illustrations of Walter Crane, in Australia of the Victorian Socialist Party, itself founded by Tom Mann. He was to remain committed to the idea of our history, even as his optic opened out across the years.

More, we could say there was a further prehistory, for his work began in the Australian Marxist journal Intervention from 1972, and his radical critique of mainstream local historiography published there. This theoretical curiosity also set him up for a lifelong interrogation of the radical liberal tradition, not least in its colonial formation in the period before Federation. For if practices and power mattered, so did intellectuals, everyday life and ideas.

His was an extraordinary achievement, in text, words on the page, and in words and deeds among those he worked with. His generosity and willingness to offer help and support were legendary. He knew how to lift, and to give, as well as to lead. He was of prodigious memory, and shared all that he remembered. 

His written legacy stretches from the beginnings, on British communism, to his last, the second volume of his marathon history of Australian communism, The Party, to be published in 2022. This much already is impressive, especially when you add in the first instalment of the Communist Party’s Australian history, The Reds, 1998. What is more remarkable becomes clear when we fill in details of that arc, or what went in between: almost forty books both singular and shared, hundreds of essays and articles, and strong and sustained interventions in public life when called upon. 

The books included A Proletarian Science, 1980, and Little Moscows, 1980, the fruit of his British years, following an earlier MA on John Strachey at Monash.  Militant, a biography of the West Australian communist and waterside leader Paddy Troy, followed in 1984. Stuart had been working and living in the west, after Cambridge, and naturally extended his research curiosity into this backyard. He published Winners and Losers, a brilliant survey of struggles for social justice in Australia, after working in Canberra in 1985. The Succeeding Age, followed in 1986 as a volume in the Oxford History of Australia – it scrutinised the years 1901–1942. The Labour Experiment, which arrived in 1988 was a slim and perfectly compressed survey of the Labor tradition in Australia, coming to the conclusion that the leftwing hopes set into motion into the twentieth century were by its end largely exhausted. What came to be known as New Labour, pioneered in Australia and developed into an art form by the British Labour Party, was the kiss of death to the earlier reforming hopes shared by the industrial and political wings of the ALP. 

A Colonial Liberalism appeared in 1991. This may have been his most adventurous mid career work, entering the imaginations of the actors who combined all the contradictions that made liberalism the awkward reforming force that it was, masculinist and racist as well as optimistic and progressive in its legislative ambitions across the colonies. A biography of Professor Ernest Scott, A History for a Nation, followed in 1994, again inspecting the backyard, as Stuart had by this point taken on Scott’s name chair at Melbourne  and felt compelled to make sense of the legacy and his own project, between the labour movement, socialism and liberalism itself.  

The Reds, delivered in 1998, was the perfectly clipped title of the first volume of the history of the CPA, commissioned by the Search Foundation, the unit which took on the unfinished business of the Party after its final dissolution. A Concise History of Australia arrived in 1999, with six revised editions to follow. It became the most popular of his books, fitting the mould of Scott and others who had also engaged in popular history, the single volume introduction for the newly arrived or curious. There were other standout tools of reference like the Oxford Companion to Australian History, a labour of love coedited with Graeme Davison and John Hirst. This leader was also nothing if not a cooperator. 

The History Wars, with Anna Clark, was published in 2003, taking on the public struggles over the national narrative, which by this time was becoming increasingly boosterist, nationalistic, and militarizing in its government authorized version. The Poor Relation, a history of the social sciences, was commissioned by The Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, of which Stuart had acted as president; for his attentions were always spread across liberal arts and the social sciences in Australia and further afar, into empire and commonwealth. The history of the social sciences was also the history of reform, of hopes and hard times, of liberals and labour as well as sociologists and demographers. All the above-mentioned contradictions still applied. 

In  2010, Stuart published Australia’s Boldest Experiment, on Postwar Reconstruction, which many would view as his greatest achievement. It shows him at the peak of his own capacities writing about Labor in its own finest hours, the equivalent of the Attlee Years in Britain. In 2015, he coauthored two shared volumes on universities, which had held so many hopes for radicals of his vintage, and by now had turned into bureaucratic managerial regimes driven by the most peculiar of rationalities, sometimes inimical to the practice of history itself. The epitaph is The Party, 2022. His only complaint in the writing of this last book was that communists in Australia, as elsewhere, had generated so much paperwork, had so many institutional enemies doing the same, and had such a sense of their own history, that the archives were neverending, almost to the point of being defeating, overwhelming. He had to stop short, with the resulting irony that the eventual collapse of the CPA and its dissolution into the final grand hopes of the ALP-ACTU Accord from 1983 were yet to arrive in the narrative. The book finishes rather around the point of his own first personal contact with the party into the seventies. 

What becomes apparent here is a trend that opens across the life as it expands, from labour to general history, settler colonialism and imperialism always present … nationalism and nation alongside labour and capital as it unfolds. If, as Gramsci said, to write the history of communism was to write the history of its people, then the horizon would expand accordingly, even in a place as remote from the volatility of Italian popular and radical life as the antipodes. Communism was inevitably both a global and a local story. The history of everyday life would open out further from these axes.

But the print record is also the tip of the iceberg. Stuart was a builder of community and solidarity. Possessed of herculean energy, he supported everything and everybody who came his way. He was a permanent enabler, the kind of quiet leader and colleague who always went for why not, rather than why. He wanted that we and our scholarship, our shared labours of understanding and self-understanding should flourish.

He was a friend to our journal Thesis Eleven, which was established in Melbourne around the same time as his return from Western Australia, in 1980. We carried some of his sharpest essays, including ‘The Short History of Social Democracy in Australia’, which made our Top 40, celebrating our own 40th Birthday and was then discussed by several of the participants in the online webinars of November 2021, his last days approaching unbeknownst. He wrote and reviewed for us, and his work was reviewed in our pages by others. We celebrated his work in #95 of the journal, in 2008. Yet his work was rarely celebrated, perhaps because he was taken for granted, perhaps because we thought he would always be there, perhaps because of a modesty barely recognizable in the academy today. He spread his energies wide and far, and rarely said no to requests, perhaps out of duty to the cause, however construed, perhaps because of the belief that he was always learning, even though his students by this stage privately referred to him as Macapedia. We used to call him the Oracle, though never to his face, and dropped this habit on realizing that we were among hundreds who if in doubt, would ‘ask Stuart’. Wiki may have freed him up a little to get on with his own work. He certainly loved Trove, and never recovered from the pleasure of the archive. 

The Work of History: Writing for Stuart Macintyre, edited by Peter Beilharz & Sian Supski (Melbourne University Press)

 We offer a further vote of thanks in the forthcoming edited volume, The Work of History – Writing for Stuart Macintyre, to be published next year. This brings together a team of the finest scholars to both read his work again and to add further to it. For he was a builder, one among us leading by example, and holding steadfast to the possibility that the world might indeed be changed again, for the better by those who will follow. He seemed to remember everything; we will remember him. We celebrate his person and his life, and mourn his loss. We deeply regret being unable to hand him this volume, to say thankyou, again, for everything. We know that his friends and readers across the shores will share this loss, and look to building further upon this life of labour. For Martha, Mary and Jessie the loss is immeasurable.

Peter Beilharz is Professor of Critical Theory at Sichuan University; Sian Supski is a freelance researcher, and Adjunct Research Fellow in Sociology at La Trobe University.

Tribute: a British perspective on Stuart Macintyre, by Kevin Morgan