#On Humphrey McQueen, _A New Britannia_

On Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia

An impressionistic review of Humphrey McQueen’s legendary attack on the nineteenth century origins of Australian racism and nationalism and their political expression in the Australian Labor Party. Based on the revised 1976 edition (Penguin).

Humphrey McQueen is one of those legendary figures on the left, particularly among the strange cabal of leftist intellectuals who hover on the edges of the academy, to which I belong. I remember first coming across McQueen the man at an Historical Materialism conference in Sydney. There his presence in the suites of the Sydney Mechanics Institute in Pitt Street added to my understanding of the tapestry of the history and future of leftist thought in Australia that the conference represented. A New Britannia is a powerful intervention in Australian historiography and it generated significant controversy when it was first published in 1970. On the back cover of the revised 1976 edition, I found at a secondhand bookshop in Sydney earlier this year, much marketing potential is harvested from this controversy. The book ‘delighted the critics’, we are told, with quotes from three critical reviews by prominent Australian intellectuals who panned the book as ‘bad’, ‘cock-eyed’ and ‘slipshod’. Having read it as a trained academic, the characterisation of the text as ‘slipshod’ has some merit. The narrative pace is uneven and at times I lost track of what was going on even within a single sentence, let alone across paragraphs. At the same time, its passion and lack of regard for historiographical convention was part of the book’s charm. It sounds like the uncensored scream of a young intellectual looking back on the storied history of labour and working class struggle in Australia and finding plenty of evidence of the racism and individualism of many of our nineteenth century proletarian heroes.

The conclusions McQueen reaches about the racism of Australian left nationalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century seem commonplace to someone reading the book in 2020. Despite McQueen’s exile from the academic mainstream, it seems many of his conclusions are now widely accepted. However, one wonders whether this acceptance might not have had quite the opposite effect of that which was intended. McQueen’s style of unmasking the left’s historical heroes is characteristic of postmodern labour history, where it seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the general depoliticisation of the subject. For an earlier generation of socialist and communist labour historians, the past was a source of lessons of direct relevance to the contemporary struggle, even though this went hand-in-hand with the romanticisation of past struggles. Today, labour historians see class as a ‘category of analysis’ rather than a political project and one could be forgiven at times for thinking their goal in unmasking the failings of historic movements is to make despair convincing rather than hope possible, to misquote Raymond Williams. This process of depoliticisation is something McQueen rails against, but perhaps it is also the inevitable consequence of the new left attack on the often simplistic partisan historiography of an earlier generation, with their explicit commitment to socialism.

As an attack on the Australian Labor Party, the book ably and succinctly demonstrates the party’s anti-socialist origins. What’s more, while acknowledging the role of corruption in the failings of individual Labor politicians and the party as a whole, he convincingly lays out the more fundamental problem that Labor as a political organisation has never challenged capitalist hegemony. As a result, the party is little more than an institution for furthering the professional advancement of individual members of the working and lower middle classes. When faced with the task of rule, Labor has consistently ruled in the interests of the ruling class because it fundamentally accepts their class hegemony. It may have been a party of the working and lower middle classes, but it has has never been a party for the proletariat. Today, as the proletariat becomes ever-more diffuse and its internal divisions and differences multiply, Labor continues to play a similar role. It organises particular elements of the trade union bureaucracy and the community sector into an electoral machine and in the process provides a means of advancement for professionals in those sectors. Unfortunately, while McQueen’s revelations about the failings of nineteenth century working class heroes are now widely accepted, his critique of the ALP as the party of petit bourgeois racist nationalism does not seem to have made much progress in the academic humanities, probably because illusions in the ALP and allegiance to its politics of class compromise remain so entrenched in the sector.

Reading McQueen in 2020 also left me wondering about the nature of public debate in the era of the multitude. My worn Penguin edition of McQueen’s book, which I picked up in a Sydney bookshop for $6, was published at a time when an audience existed for this kind of complex historiographical debate. The work makes significant demands on its readers, particularly in terms of assumed knowledge about the history and historiography of nineteenth century Australia. That this book, with its red armband political perspective and complex argument could appear in a Penguin edition in the 1970s forces one to reflect on the state of public debate in Australia today. Academic historiography seems to retreat further and further from the mainstream of reading and publishing in Australia. Part of this is surely the result of the relentless drive for academic historians to publish with ‘prestigious’ international publishers, for whom a hundred or so copies sold to university libraries is the extent of their ambition for a reading public. When academic historians do break through into mass-market audiences, their material tends to the well-digested and palatable. I suspect McQueen’s passionate but ‘slipshod’ approach would struggle to find a publisher today.

Furthermore, McQueen addresses himself to an audience that, even if it can be assumed to have largely disagreed with him, was far more unified in terms of a shared political culture than that which exists today. Agreement on truth and the parameters within which to conduct historical debate is harder and harder to find, something to which the issue of ‘fake news’, the election of Donald Trump and the resurgence of the far-right in ostensibly ‘liberal-democratic’ political systems all attest. Increasingly, we inhabit a multitude of overlapping thought-worlds, where understandings of the past and the present proliferate and diverge ever more widely. Would a McQueen-style intervention even be possible in the current climate? While there has been a revival of socialist discourse on the internet and in some left-leaning media outlets in Australia, debate in these forums seems to be dominated by a neo-Keynesianism which McQueen would no doubt reject as forcefully as he does Australia’s racist left nationalism. In his highly sceptical foreword to the volume, Manning Clarke characterises McQueen’s book as a definitive expression of the New Left’s critique of the past. Today it would be hard to imagine a reading public with enough in common in their view of the past to make such a critique even intelligible, let alone for it to carry political weight.