Inside Story

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The citizen historian

Stuart Macintyre, 1947–2021

Frank Bongiorno 1 December 2021 1561 words

“His own standards in prose, happily, were set by the great English historians of the nineteenth century, especially Macaulay, with a just dash of P.G. Wodehouse.”


I could work my way through the highlights of Stuart Macintyre’s career, conscientiously reciting book titles, prizes and other accolades, his role in learned academies and professional organisations, his prestigious government and university appointments. But most of us are capable of googling Wikipedia, and to talk about these things would, in any case, tell you little of what Stuart has meant to the Australian historical profession, academia, universities or the wider history world.

I kept an eye on the obituaries, tributes, tweets and posts after Stuart’s passing — there had never been any prospect of Stuart himself going down the rabbit hole of social media — and I can’t recall anything quite like it. Alongside the sadness, affection, admiration and gratitude, the word that kept cropping up was “generous.” It’s an accurate description of Stuart but also, perhaps, inadequate. There’s no shortage of stories of Stuart’s generosity, not only from the usual suspects — students and colleagues such as me — but also from teachers, journalists, politicians, public servants, librarians, archivists, think-tankers and publishers. And there was a grateful, even besotted, reading public.

Stuart’s ability to read a manuscript and return it with detailed comment a few days later was legendary. We loved him for this selflessness, as for his loyalty. But his greatest act of generosity was to encourage us to find our own way of being historians. How easy it would have been for a man of such prodigious brilliance and unbending willpower to try to remake those he influenced into carbon copies of himself, or to assemble a devoted but dreary circle of disciples. Instead, Stuart lived what academic freedom might be.

What we so inadequately call Stuart’s generosity was just one expression of his understanding of what it meant to be an academic and a historian. For Stuart it was about citizenship. But citizenship can’t exist in the absence of other citizens: in his generosity, the only thanks Stuart wanted was that its beneficiaries would do the same for others when it was in their power. His understanding of the historian as citizen was why he took on all those leadership roles — in his own university, Melbourne, but also as president of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and the Australian Historical Association, as chair of the Civics Expert Group, as a member of library councils and school history curriculum committees. It continued into what we might ironically call his retirement, as president of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History and chair of the Heritage Council of Victoria.

Stuart was incapable of writing a bad book, but my own favourite is A Colonial Liberalism: The Lost World of Three Victorian Visionaries, published thirty years ago. It’s the one that spoke — and still speaks — the most to me, and the one that speaks to me most of Stuart himself: or at least of how he understood his own public and professional role. The “visionaries” in A Colonial Liberalism were George Higinbotham, Charles Pearson and David Syme. Along with some famous lines from Robert Burns’s “A Man’s a Man for a’ That,” Stuart kept a picture of Higinbotham on his office wall for years. I’m not sure if Stuart had heroes — leaving aside names such as Peck, Kennedy and Hudson — but it’s plain that Higinbotham was for him a powerful exemplar of what it meant to be a democratic citizen in this country. He was radical by intellect and conviction, fearless in his politics, firm in defence of principle, and generous — there’s that word again — in his sympathies. I think Stuart found much to admire in Pearson and Syme, too: Pearson was an academic historian, after all, and Syme a Scot. But Higinbotham was Stuart’s man.

Stuart’s early research was in British labour history and his two books on British Marxism have secured him a secure place as one of its most creative and penetrating interpreters. The history of communism and the radical left was there at the beginning, in the middle with The Reds, and at the end in The Party, completed with great fortitude during his illness. It was the subject that brought within a single frame Stuart’s own commitment to the left, his engagement with theory and ideas, his valuing of tradition, and his belief in the importance of political and labour history, broadly conceived, and told as a national story in an international context.

Stuart’s fascination with the lives people made in the Communist Party — so many of them working-class autodidacts — remained to the end. He’d been a party member, understood its culture deeply, and wrote memorably about these women and men. But Stuart here was also in this, I think, disclosing something of himself as a historian. He valued the breadth and variety that historical enquiry offered; more than most scientists experienced, he thought. In this way, being a historian is also to be a sort of autodidact. You’re always teaching yourself something new.

Stuart has been a highly original and deeply influential interpreter of our country, working on a large national canvas but never losing sight of the local, the particular and the idiosyncratic. He continued to write political history, and to make the case for its importance, at a time when historical fashion moved in other directions. But Stuart’s political history was also social, labour and economic history: his was no stuffy tale of high politics, of maps and chaps, nor a dogmatic account of the unfolding of history toward some inevitable outcome. Having as a young man immersed himself in Marxist theory, Stuart was indulgent towards younger scholars who followed their own theoretical paths, sometimes into marshes and bogs that he could see with clarity well before others. But he was uneasy about the fragmentation of history into narrow specialisms, avoided it in own practice, and warmly encouraged other foxes who knew “many things” while still loyally supporting hedgehogs with their eye on the “one big thing.”

Stuart was a stylish, engaging writer with a superb sense of rhythm. He always resisted the urge, which can be overwhelming in those with these gifts, to be too clever by half. He did not waste his talents ingratiating himself with the powerful by coining politically useful but intellectually vacuous phrases for them to use as guided missiles against their opponents. I recall discussion at a conference a few years back. How could historians influence policy? Should they write one-page briefing papers for ministers? A slide deck, perhaps, or a workshop with public servants? The best thing they could do, Stuart suggested, was write an important book. Stuart had recently done just that: Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s. It won prizes; it beat one of mine in a couple of shortlists.

Have you heard of Second Wind and Shadow King? No, I didn’t think so. They were placegetters to Phar Lap in the 1930 Melbourne Cup. I’m able to empathise with those two nags, huffing and puffing as they trailed behind the champion by several lengths.

Something remarkable happened a few years after Australia’s Boldest Experiment was published. It had its own second wind. Everyone, it seemed, was reading it: in the think tanks, in the federal Labor shadow cabinet, among the Twitterati — indeed wherever you encountered anyone who thought a global pandemic might also be an opportunity to make something better. Here was Stuart, now gravely ill, demonstrating again that it is only through reimagining the past that we can even begin to imagine a better future, as well as how it might be won. His historical and progressive commitments had come together in an almost miraculous alignment.

This radical historical imagination is why so many of us held Stuart in awe — not because he wrote lots of good books — great books — or kindly commented expertly on our work in a timely way. How Stuart would have hated the term “role model”! His own standards in prose, happily, were set by the great English historians of the nineteenth century, especially Macaulay, with a just dash of P.G. Wodehouse. So, I’ll use another word that might just have passed muster. Stuart has been a formidable exemplar of a historian’s life. Many of us have spent careers doing our best to negotiate his example, hampered by having a poor fraction of his talent and discipline. Fortunately for us, he was slow to judge when we inevitably fell short.

I recall encountering Stuart in a university caff in Calgary where we’d arrived for a conference. Typically, he had his nose in a book, brushing up on his Canadian history. The first business to be transacted was deliberation on the truly glorious fact that there were two Canadian historians known as Professor Careless and Professor Wrong. But after that, it was clear that what mattered most about Canada was that his daughter Mary and her partner Phi were there. No one who has known this warm and gracious man could have overlooked how much his family meant to him. I offer my deepest condolences to Martha, to Mary and Jessie, and to all in Stuart’s family. •

This eulogy was delivered at Ormond College on 30 November 2021.

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