Type
Essay
Category
History of the Left

Feature | Reading Humphrey McQueen's A New Britannia in decolonial times

There are books that, without you even knowing it, have shaped who you are as a thinker. I was reminded of as much on re-reading Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia: An argument concerning the social origins of Australian radicalism and nationalism.1 First published in 1970, my well-thumbed third edition from 1986 had been picked up at a second-hand store to replace an earlier fourth edition published in 2004 and now yellowing on some long-lost acquaintance’s bookshelf.

McQueen’s evocative, peripatetic style encouraged me to seek out diverse, disconnected archives, while his attention to sources we would now associate with ‘cultural history’, particularly a close reading of the words of radicals, saw my research focus on the ephemeral utterances, the poorly typed leaflet or handwritten speech notes as evidence of how meanings and ideas change over time. Most importantly, he taught me that good history was daring.

But we read in context, and my most recent reading of A New Britannia was framed by the current push to ‘decolonise’ history. The whiteness of the history profession has come into question, as has its implication in colonialism, and its concomitant exclusion of diverse voices. Attention has been paid to how white supremacist narratives, whether embedded in statues or consecrated in national celebrations, continue to predominate in public discourse, and the academy itself.

McQueen’s book was in many ways the flagship of an earlier period of ‘decolonising’ Australia’s past. Frank Bongiorno has described A New Britannia as the ‘daddy’ of the history wars, the first work of ‘black armband’ scholarship that confronted the dominant reading of Australian history on both right and left.2 For McQueen, while conservatives celebrated a peaceful, prosperous nation riding the ‘sheep’s back’, radicals venerated an authentic working-class culture of resistance that shaped the nation’s values and temperament as collective and egalitarian. The only problem was that such a culture had never properly existed. What had predominated, argued McQueen, was a bourgeois ideology of racism, imperialism, militarism, and acquisitiveness.

What I want to do in this short piece is firstly to contextualise McQueen’s reading of the earlier ‘radical nationalist’ historical tradition. Second, I want to look at how A New Britannia fit into a period of scholarly radicalism that faced up to the racist, colonial nature of Australian history. Lastly, I look back on A New Britannia from the vantage point of today: noting simultaneously the ways it has prefigured new forms of scholarship, including settler colonial and whiteness studies, and its limitations as a ‘decolonial’ framework. I will also gesture towards the ways that McQueen’s Marxism can help us overcome the problem Tuck & Yang identify of ‘decolonisation as metaphor’.3

I read McQueen’s contention to be that the only way truly to ‘decolonise’ Australian history is not to locate a vital, organic radical Australian tradition to replace the stultified British one, but to situate Australia as ‘a frontier of white capitalism’: ‘Only by relocating settler Australia in the mainstream of world developments will it be possible to understand the nature of our radicalism or of our nationalism.’4 Australia’s radicalism, then, has always been overdetermined by the material conditions of its emergence in a white settler society where land was cheap (indeed, stolen) and labour scarce. I propose here that, if we are to do McQueen justice today, we must take these ideas a step further: by locating moments when Australian workers broke with their privileged position in the imperial hierarchy. In order to construct a useable decolonial past, we must understand the process whereby white workers came to identify their struggles as contingent on the liberation of colonised others.

McQueen’s book appeared in September 1970, at a high point of radical sentiment. McQueen later surmised his book’s context as ‘the late 1960s – when the mood had been established by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the May Days in France, the Prague Spring and the O’Shea strike’ – when the walk out of a million Australian workers finally broke the power of the anti-union penal laws.5

This sense of transformation, a rejection of the old and stultified for the contemporary and revolutionary, fired McQueen’s style. In chapter after brilliantly if caustically argued chapter, he presented those who made Australia a fin-de-siècle ‘working man’s paradise’ as exclusionary, racist, militaristic and fearful. The ‘radicals’ such a nation produced – militant miners at the Eureka stockade, trade unionists, members of socialist organisations and, of course, the Labor Party itself – merely reflected the needs of an expanding colonial society: for state-backed development facilitated by collaboration between employers and workers.

Therein, McQueen rejected a school of thought that had enjoyed a long hold on Australia’s radical imaginary. The ‘radical nationalist’ school of Australian history proposed an overtly anti-colonial argument, perhaps first articulated at length in Brian Fitzpatrick’s The British Empire in Australia (1939), that British imperialism procured what Lenin had dubbed ‘superprofits’ from the subordination of its Australian colonies. Russell Marks identifies the germination of this line of thinking with the ‘popular front’ era of the 1930s, when Moscow dictated a turn to unity with social democratic parties, and the Communist Party of Australia – to whom these thinkers looked for leadership – refashioned itself as ‘the real inheritor of…true Australianism’.6 In so doing, they articulated a radical-nationalist reading of Australian history can arguably be traced back to at least the Sydney Bulletin of the 1880s and the radical intellectuals and writers associated with it.

In the post-war era, the Communist Party established a plethora of cultural institutions to rehabilitate what was seen as an authentic Australian working-class culture. The New Theatre, Realist Writers’ Groups, Wattle Records and this very journal were products of the Party’s focus on Australian culture. Influenced by developments in Britain associated with the Communist Party Historians Group but also reacting against the conservatism and Anglophilia of Menzies’ Australia in the 1950s, a new generation of radical historians sought to locate in this neglected bush culture a properly ‘national’ radicalism that offered the basis of genuine class consciousness. The most famous of their number, Russel Ward, produced The Australian Legend in 1958, based on a doctoral thesis in history undertaken at the Australian National University where he was among its earliest postgraduate students in history.7

Ward’s book, a sympathetic treatment of the ‘bush legend’ and the itinerant workers – shearers, miners, stockriders – whom he claimed epitomised it, argued that the distinctive aspects of Australian identity had their origins in the experience and outlook of this floating group of workers. In tracing the origins and development of this tradition, Ward was however also engaged in a process of invention – an attempt to offer a new reading of Australian history that favoured the downtrodden over the elite, and made the bushman into an implicitly anti-colonial figure.

 

Critics then and now have identified the manifold deficiencies of the approach of Ward and others. For some, his application of Frederick Jackson Turner’s American frontier thesis sat oddly in Australian conditions, where rates of urbanisation were very high. To others, the radical nationalists were insufficiently nationalist. Theirs was not a form of assertiveness that fit with the struggles for self-determination – which we now group under the historical moniker of ‘decolonisation’ – then inspiring minds in Africa and Asia, but one which set a white Australian tempo to a larger, imperial score. It was a rearticulation, and not rejection, of British race patriotism.

Following McQueen’s highly publicised intervention – the book was reviewed more than 30 times, including in most major metropolitan dailies – ‘attacks on the Old Left in general and Ward in particular [became] nearly obligatory for young historians launching academic careers’.8 The new historians of Indigenous people and women were among the critics. For Henry Reynolds, Ward’s imagining of a rural proletarian culture of mateship, equality and distrust of authority ignored ‘the pistols nonchalantly thrust through the belt of his noble frontiersman’, tools of innumerable massacres against the nation’s Indigenous peoples.9 Miriam Dixson in her 1976 book The Real Matilda judged that Ward’s paean to the masculine frontier lifestyle ‘reeks of womanlessness’, whereby the rural working class had “the privilege of despising not only ‘new chums’ and ‘city folk’ but also human beings who were female”.10

Despite their necessary critiques, both Reynolds and Dixson’s projects were deeply indebted to Ward’s pioneering work, which took seriously the historical significance of ordinary people’s ideas and cultures as central to the national story. McQueen’s own writing had more in common with Ward’s style of incipient social history than E.P. Thompson’s then still-marginal – in Australia at least – ‘history from below’. For McQueen and the many New Left critics who followed in his wake the radical nationalists’ folly was in that their ‘frozen Marxism’ made them unable to fully grasp the centrality of race and gender to the perpetuation of ruling class power.

In a lengthy response to reviews, McQueen condemned both those like Ward who minimised the impact of the economic ‘base’ in favour of the cultural or political ‘superstructure’, and Ian Turner’s ‘attempt to link rises and falls in class consciousness with a factually dubious compilation of unemployment rates and real wages’.11 While McQueen himself would be accused of privileging consciousness over structure in subsequent Marxist historiography, what he found lacking in this bifurcated approach was that it misread base and superstructure as discrete ‘objects’ rather than being mediated by ‘sensuous human activity’.12 A New Britannia argued that it was the interplay between Marx’s categories of base and superstructure, what EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class called ‘experience’, that mattered.13

McQueen’s understanding of class, as a response to felt experience rather than a preordained outcome of either economic forces or directed political agitation, made his critique of Ward’s underplaying of Australia’s historic racism so important. Ward did not necessarily shy away from the hatreds of his noble frontiersman, noting that ‘It is true that the bushman carries in his cultural swag delusions of racial grandeur as well as mateship, but every tradition has good and bad aspects’. The problem, for McQueen and the generation of scholars who followed him into the expanding higher education system, was that Ward did not see how codes of mateship were themselves a product of those racial delusions.

Writing off popular ideology as an effect of economics – of superstructure following base – both limited the agency of the working class, and ignored the role of hegemony, as Gramsci understood it. McQueen’s was particularly influenced by readings of The Modern Prince (Gramsci’s only major work then translated into English), as well as British historians Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn. This prompted him to ask the question of how, as Russell Marks surmises, “the Australian bourgeoisie obtained the consent of other social groups (including the working classes) so as to emerge as the ‘ruling class’ by the early twentieth century”.14

While Marx was correct to argue that ‘ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships’, the process whereby these ideas became dominant needed to be understood as well, and not taken as preordained. Given the strength of bourgeois hegemony at this time, it was then only logical that racism and colonialism would be reflected in – and crucially, reinforced by – the ‘anti-imperialism’ of Ward’s bushman. Australian radicals’ support for the South African Boers in their conflict with Britain (1899-1902), argued McQueen, ‘was often nothing more than support for the White Australia Policy’ and the potential risk arising from the defeat of a fellow white nation, while opposition to Imperial Federation arose from concern regarding Australia’s autonomy within the Empire.15 This was a ‘peculiar…Australian anti-imperialism which accepted British domination of the world as a precondition for Australian independence.’16

What McQueen had done was not, as some reviewers claimed, write a book about racism. Instead, he had located Australian racism as powered not only by economic factors – the desire to maintain a small working population – but also as a central part of cultural identity. Everything from gender relations to public morality was policed, at least partially, with reference to race, which was part of a broader constellation of gendered and classed social relations. To identify racism was easy in 1970, at the height of the historical ascendence of anti-colonial ideology at home and abroad. To understand it as part of a settler totality was much harder, but McQueen’s approach represented an early stage in such a project.

 

What are we to make of A New Britannia today? The author himself has been perhaps his own harshest critic. In a lengthy afterword that appeared with the third edition, McQueen took himself to task for numerous perceived failures. A ‘crucial weakness’ of the text was its failure to understand historical processes, and ‘For a Marxist, there could be no more telling flaw’, McQueen offered in a characteristically harsh self-criticism.17 Furthermore, McQueen chastised his younger self for falling into the trap of ‘most historians [who] write as if capitalism has never existed’ rather than taking into account its development over time.18

Finally, his interpretation of Australian racism came under the microscope. Far from overzealous, McQueen judged his reading of Australian racism as insufficiently expansive, finding that race coloured debate on everything from democracy to abortion: the fear of a white man’s daughter ‘nursing a little coffee-coloured brat’ in the words of radical William Lane, or of the ‘Chinaman’s’ corrupting opium habit. The ‘white Australia policy’ stood in as shorthand for the broader array of progressive concerns that the journalist Paul Kelly would in 1992 dub ‘the Australian settlement’.19

A New Britannia’s limitations as a text have not however stopped it influencing scholarship that has taken seriously understanding Australia’s complicated enmeshment of race, gender and class. Lorenzo Veracini writes in his paradigmatic exploration The Settler Colonial Present how:

McQueen insightfully noted in A New Britannia [that] in its early decades the Australian labour movement was not defined (positively) by the way in which it was positioned in the context of material relations [of] production. On the contrary, he noted, this specific settler colonial collective (like all settler collectives, I would add) was defined (negatively) with reference to what it wanted to be. For McQueen, ‘dreams of escape into landed proprietorship’ shaped the consciousness of ‘a peculiar kind of petit-bourgeoisie’.20

McQueen here provides a point of germination for studies linking the way race functions to how property in land became central in settler societies. A New Britannia’s argument that race had psychological and cultural ramifications and origins as well as economic can also be seen as preceding the much better known work of David Roedigner in The Wages of Whiteness (and of course, reflecting long established insights within the black radical tradition, back to WEB Du Bois’ 1905 ‘The Souls of White Folk’).21 McQueen’s insights still inform contemporary whiteness scholarship, particularly, as one recent contribution has it, the idea that ‘Australian whiteness grew out of a manic desire to own and control the land mass, its people and the environment.’22 These kinds of insights – about the relationship of land and race – have been central to the emergence of settler colonial studies, as pioneered in Australia by the late Patrick Wolfe.

But, A New Britannia is a product of its time, and the insights (and critiques) of settler-colonial studies from Indigenous scholars like Aileen Moreton-Robertson and Shino Konishi now render it a history of race and racism which ignored and silenced its victims.23 This is a history of racism as practiced by white people, the creation of Whiteness, not of how it shaped the lives of real historical people, or how they in turn responded to its effects on their lives. McQueen went some way to correcting this in work undertaken across the next decade, particularly Social Sketches of Australia, 1888–1975 (1978), wherein he described Indigenous resistance as ‘defensive action against the European invaders.’24

A New Britannia equally paid no attention to those ‘Marxist internationalists’ who McQueen claimed ‘have done more than any other group in Australia to combat racism’,25 nor probe whatever cross-racial solidarities they worked to produce. While it is perhaps unfair to claim that McQueen and other new left critics blamed the working class for racism, by neglecting opposition and contingency, and saying little about ruling-class racism, McQueen might be seen to have fostered a new Australian Legend of the racist, chauvinist and greedy settler.26

 

The challenge of decolonising history – to centre marginal voices, contest the inevitability of settler colonialism, and critically consider how our racialised societies have structured the very fields we work on and within – is an essential one for historians and activists alike. This must be meaningful, and not merely metaphorical, as Tuck and Yang remind us. It must be about not just understanding but correcting and making right the wrongs of the past. It is for this reason, perhaps more than any other, that we need to view racism not as an unfortunate by-product of society – or in the old Marxist line, as a sort of ‘trick’ pulled on the (implicitly, white) working class – but rather as central to how modernity was produced.

This was perhaps McQueen’s biggest and most obvious gift to our decolonising moment: that if we want to understand how class has worked in Australia, we shouldn’t look to the bush ballads and proud history of rural struggle, like Ward and his ilk, but to the ways that the fear (or the imagined ‘dying out’) of racialised others produced the coordinates of the political possible at that time. As McQueen put it, ‘The workers would not respond to the brazen rhetoric of racism if it did not strike a chord in their own experience; if it did not at least distort some aspect of their reality’.27 Crucially, racism and racial exclusion appeared to coincide with the needs and demands of Australian workers, leading to the stigmatisation of supposed inferiors, but it also acted to circumscribe the political power of those workers who were awarded the category of ‘white’. It provided a kind of limit of the possible, in terms of their own politics.

Karl Marx himself realised this, arguing in an 1870 letter that it needed to be made plainly clear to British workers that ‘for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.’28 Scholars such as Priyamvada Gopal in Insurgent Empire explore how a variety of working- and middle-class radicals in Britain’s metropole forged powerful alliances with and received the ‘reverse tutelage’ of anti-colonial activists in the periphery, finding their struggles not merely complementary but enwrapped.29

Such a reading hints at what Marx’s insight looks like in contemporary historiography, which has begun to be practiced in the Australian context by Paddy Gibson, whose recently-completed PhD thesis explores how the ground-breaking 1931 Communist Party program on Indigenous rights was directly informed by members of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association.30 It is the exploration of the process whereby Australian workers came to realise that their own power lay in the liberation of all – from class, racial, colonial and other forms of oppression – that constitutes the unfinished legacy of McQueen’s intervention.

 

Endnotes

1. Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia: An argument concerning the social origins of Australian radicalism and nationalism, 3rd Ed. (Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Press, 1986).
2. Frank Bongiorno, ‘Two Radical Legends: Russel Ward, Humphrey McQueen and the New Left Challenge in Australian Historiography’, Journal of Australian Colonial History 10, No. 2 (2008): 203.
3. Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang, ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1–40.
4. McQueen, A New Britannia, 3.
5. McQueen, A New Britannia, ix
6. Russell Marks, ‘Rejection, redemption, ambivalence: the New Left and Australian nationalism’ (PhD Thesis, La Trobe University, 2011), 31.
7. Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1958).
8. Bongiorno, ‘Two Radical Legends’, 201.
9. Henry Reynolds, Why Weren’t We Told? A personal search for the truth about our history (Ringwood, Vic: Penguin, 1999), 131–2.
10. Miriam Dixson, The Real Matilda (Melbourne: Penguin, 1976), 24.
11. Humphrey McQueen, ‘Australo-Marximus: On some reactions to a new Britannia’, Politics 7, no. 1 (1972): 51.
12. McQueen, ‘Australo-Marximus’, 51.
13. Edward Palmer Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Viking, 1964).
14. Marks, ‘Rejection, redemption, ambivalence’, 210.
15. McQueen, A New Britannia, 21.
16. McQueen, A New Britannia, 22.
17. McQueen, A New Britannia, 254.
18. McQueen, A New Britannia, 256.
19. McQueen, A New Britannia, 268–9.
20. Lorenzo Veracini, The Settler-Colonial Present (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 3.
21. David Roedigner, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991); WEB Du Bois, ‘The Souls of White Folk’, in W.E.B. Du Bois: Writings (Washington: Library of America, 1987), 923–38.
22. Kim Huynh and Siobhan Neyland, ‘Australian Whiteness and Refugee Politics,’ Australian Journal of Politics & History 66, no. 1 (2020): 113.
23. Aileen Moreton-Robertson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 2015); Shino Konishi, ‘First Nations Scholars, Settler Colonial Studies, and Indigenous History’, Australian Historical Studies 50, no. 3 (2019): 285–304.
24. Humphrey McQueen, Social Sketches of Australia: 1888–1978 (Ringwood, Vic: Penguin, 1978), 24.
25. McQueen, ‘Australo-Marximus’, 49.
26. For such a critique see Verity Burgmann, ‘Revolutionaries and Racists: Australian Socialism and the Problem of Racism’ (PhD Thesis, The Australian National University, 1980).
27. Humphrey McQueen, ‘A Race Apart’, Arena 19 (1969): 62.
28. Karl Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, 9 April 1870, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Selected correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), 223. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1870/letters/70_04_09.htm
29. Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (London: Verso, 2020).
30. Padraic Gibson, ‘Stop the War on Aborigines: The Communist Party of Australia and the Fight for Aboriginal Rights’ (PhD Thesis, University of Newcastle, 2020).

 

 

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Jon Piccini is a lecturer in history at Australian Catholic University in Meanjin/Brisbane.

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