Eras Journal – Robinson, G.: Biography and the Project of Labour History
Biography and the Project of Labour History: Marxist Anticipations and Australian Examples
The Durability of Biography
Historians have doubted the academic respectability of biography, but biographies remain among the best selling books in the liberal arts, and particularly appeal to that uncertain category of the ‘general reader’, that broadsheet book pages and the writers of publishers’ blurbs evoke. Peter Rose, most recent winner of the ‘National Prize for Biography’, argues that biography now provides for readers the ideas and inspiration that poetry and fiction once provided. The biographical project has been particularly problematic for labour history, which has, in the words of Ian Turner, sought to identify the masses rather than elites as the motivating force in history. In recent decades the ‘labour’ in labour history has expanded from that of organised male manual workers to include the work of the unpaid, the unorganised and the female, but throughout this period biography has remained a popular form.
A presentation of history in biographical terms has been popular within the Australian Labor Party (ALP). As the ideological bases of labour politics were called into practice by the record of Labor in government, party spokesmen developed a mythology of ‘true believers’ that glorified ‘true believers’ and execrated ‘rats’. The Labor Party was defined as an end in itself, entitled to loyalty regardless of the record of Labor governments. The party’s membership provided a constituency for this form of biography. The Labor Party’s official history, although narrative in form, seeks tell the story ‘from the perspective of Labor’s leading identities, local branch members and supporters…telling the story through people has helped to illuminate the individuals who shaped the party’s history’.
This paper examines the role that the biographical project has played within Australian labour historiography, as an example of the relationship between theory and practice among labour history, and of the personal history of themselves. The divergent approaches of historians to the biographical project spoke to fundamental debates about structure and agency. These debates echoed Marxist discussions of the ‘role of the individual’.
I argue that Australian labour biography, which I define broadly to include those who have reflected on the role of leadership in the labour movement, falls under two general headings. On one hand there are those that emphasise structure and see the labour movement as the natural unfolding of a class purpose, an inevitable forward march. On the other hand is the tendency that emphasises agency, in which the progression of labour is vitally dependent on the quality of its leadership. This division is not between left and right. A radical workerist and a conservative labourist could both see the history of labour as an inevitable unfolding of class purpose, a revolutionary Marxist and a social democrat could agree on the importance of leadership. I will conclude by suggesting that both sides in this debate share a similarity in their reliance on a model of men and women as unified subjects.
Biography and Class Politics
Many Australian political biographies conform to a ‘life and times’ approach in which a life is employed as a nucleus around which to structure a historical narrative. Biographies of labour figures written within this framework have often been the work of writers who do not identify as labour historians, moving on to work in other areas after completing a labour biography. John Robertson argued that Scullin’s ‘crucial’ decisions were actually not that crucial because he had little alternative to act other than how he did. Kate White considers that the tensions within Victorian Labor that led to the fall of John Cain Senior’s Victorian government in 1955 were not his responsibility: ‘The great man theory of history would be crude and inappropriate to an analysis of Cain’s Premiership’. Leslie Fitzhardinge presented Billy Hughes’ departure from the ALP as an inevitable result of Labor’s transformation from the party of rural nationalism to urban unionism. Political labour had changed, not Hughes. Patrick O’Farell’s study of Harry Holland argued for continuity in Holland’s political attitudes and interpreted Holland’s life as a sequence of conflicts between these ideas and reality.
In eschewing further work within labour history, authors such as White and Robertson made an implicit judgement about the value of labour history. To these authors labour history was no more than a specialised area within the broader historical profession. They were in agreement with those historians, such as John La Nauze, the biographer of Alfred Deakin, who feared that biographies undertaken by labour historians would not be impartial. The morally loaded concept of the ‘labour rat’, La Nauze argued, should be replaced by an objective and dispassionate analysis.
The new left, which emerged in the late 1960s, rejected the moralising form of biography from the left rather than the right, but their conclusions were similar to La Nauze. To Humphrey McQueen the original sin of labour leaders was not individual corruption, as argued in Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory, but parliamentarianism: ‘the hesitation and vacillation associated with Labor leaders are not personal quirks but rather the logic of their entire political practice.’ Other historians echoed La Nauze’s critique of the concept of the labour rat or renegade as an inappropriate imposition of moral standards on historical analysis. Peter Hart’s studies of Joseph Lyons described the consistency of his moderate reformism from Labor premier to conservative prime minister. Marilyn Lake argued that another Tasmanian ‘rat’ John Earle had always been consistent in his values. The Marxian inspirations of the new left were eventually succeeded across much of the academic left by a focus on ideological systems and discourses that recalled absolute idealism. But many scholars retained a similar approach to biography as demonstrated by the new left. An example has been Lake’s own contribution to feminist biography. She disagrees with those who categorise William Lane as a proto-feminist on the grounds of his support for policy positions associated with feminism. Lake insists that as the political discourse of Lane is cast within a masculinist framework, his subjective intentions are not the issue. Joy Damousi similarly argued that Adela Pankhurst Walsh’s apparent political oscillations were underpinned by a consistent model of feminity.
At a personal level McQueen’s response to his evaluation of labourism was to eschew orthodox academic practice in favour of teaching and political activism outside the academy. This path was blazed earlier by the first academic Australian labour biographer: Lloyd Ross. In his text William Lane, published in 1935, Ross explained Lane’s break with radicalism not as an act of betrayal but as the inevitable result of his utopian socialism. This interpretation enabled Ross to continue to defend Lane as a hero of Australian labour. Ross argued that so-called ‘Labor rats’ Hughes, W. A. Holman and Lyons were not renegades but nationalist social reformers who inevitably departed Labor when the party moved on from these values.
For the new left the critique of biography was inspired by a rejection of the terms of Cold War political debate that explained communist history in terms of the malignancy of Lenin and Stalin. Their work drew on a Marxist tradition of hostility towards the biographical project. The historian who introduced the new left to these arguments was Isaac Deutscher. He claimed that anti-Communists espoused a ‘great man’ theory of history that explained Soviet history as an inevitable consequence of Lenin’s invention of the concept of the vanguard party. Deutscher was the great radical biographer of this century. He wrote major biographies of Trotsky and Stalin and aspired to but never completed a biography of Lenin. Biography was not Deutscher’s preferred form, but he believed it was the form most likely to attract the attention of a broad readership and the interest of publishers. This later fact was of particular importance to Deutscher as a freelance writer. Deutscher employed the biographical form to assert the irrelevance of biography. Stalin’s apparent ability to implement radical shifts in policy by force of will was illusory; rather his shifts were ‘precisely the attempts of the man of the golden mean to keep balance amid the cataclysms of his time.’
Deutscher’s conviction that biography was historiographically insignificant was influenced by the determinist Marxism of the Second International. Frederick Engels had argued that radical leadership could only be effective when society was ripe for the domination of the class represented by the leader. Karl Kautsky argued that before the development of mass literacy history was written by the exploiting classes and their intellectuals to present social elites as the dynamic forces in history and the masses as passive. Kautsky believed that the rise of the labour movement would transform historiography away from a focus on individuals. Georgi Plekhanov argued that individuals could not alter the ‘general trend’ of history. In this respect Second International Marxism echoed the ideological trends of the period. One of the most influential early surveys of Marxist historical theory, by a sympathetic non-Marxist observer, was The Economic Interpretation of History by the American economist Edwin Seligman. Seligman argued that although individuals manifested free will in the aggregate social processes conformed to an overall pattern and that so-called ‘great men’ were called into existence by the needs of their time. History in his view should no longer be identified with biography.
Some years later Antonio Gramsci would find the approval ‘bourgeois’ social scientists gave aspects of Second International Marxism evidence of the corruption of Marxism by a fatalistic evolutionism. One particular target of Gramsci was the ‘law of large numbers’: the proposition that across society as a whole the apparently free agency of individuals would cancel each other out. However classical Marxism was closer to what I call the ‘law of the long time’; that across historical epochs human agency is ultimately subordinate to social laws that operate independently of individual consciousness. Capitalists might suffer a Faustian conflict between the desire to consume and the desire to accumulate but competitive dynamics would ultimately force them all to accumulate or to cease being capitalists. It is this argument that post-structuralist Marxists have challenged.
At the level of theory, if not practice, the Bolsheviks were faithful to Second International Marxism. Trotsky argued in 1923 that the fate against which the subjects of classical tragedy struggled against represented society, which before the achievement of socialism confronted the individual as a hostile force. Deutscher’s biography accepted this understanding of tragedy: Trotsky’s life was a tragedy but an ultimately an optimistic one. To Deutscher the rise of Stalin was inevitable but Trotsky’s life remained meaningful. ‘Some of the proudest moments in man’s history are those when he struggles against the inevitable; and his struggle is inevitable.’ To Deutscher Stalinism was a divergence not a dead end: Trotsky would be vindicated when the transformation of the Soviet Union’s economic base as result of Stalinist industrialisation led to changes in the political superstructure. Trotsky was only seemingly the prophet outcast. Deutscher’s Trotsky is less a biography than an exercise in historical sociology.
The work of E. H. Carr paralleled many of Deutscher’s themes and had a substantial impact on the new left. Carr was strongly influenced by Deutscher and he praised his work for successfully integrating biography and historical narrative. Like Deutscher Carr argued that Stalinism was a necessary, if tragic, accompaniment of the Soviet industrial revolution: ‘Stalin rose to power through his skills in hitching his fortunes at precisely the right movement to policies that were about to win acclaim.’ The cost of Stalin’s policies was enormous but so was the achievement in the construction of a modern industrial state. Against writers such as Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper Carr defended the status of history as science. Carr identified ‘progress’ in history as the increased ability of humans to control their natural and social environment. He condemned British historiography’s moralist and Victorian preoccupation with passing judgements on individuals.
Carr’s identification with ‘progress’ disturbed many commentators. It is a classically Victorian attitude. There might seem to be a vast gap between this approach and that of radical social history, as exemplified by Edward Thompson, with its elegiac recounting of the destruction of communities and ways of life by capitalist industrialisation and its critique of the ‘condescension of prosperity’. However, both share certain core themes. Underlying Thompson’s work, for all its subtleties and ambiguities, is a master narrative of history, in which through suffering and trial a self-aware working class subject is created.
The antecedents of Thompson’s approach lay in the practice and culture of British Marxism in Britain. In contrast to its European manifestations Marxism in Britain first became a political force as the ideology of Communist trade union activists, organised by the Communist Party, but willing to work within, and remain loyal, to the institutions of working class life. A faith in the inherently progressive and ultimately revolutionary potential of trade unionism inspired the worker Communists of the thirties and forties. The experience of the Popular Front of the 1930s with its evocation of national and popular historical traditions powerfully informed the first generation of Communist historians. The sixties saw the emergence of a new left, recruited from the children of the interwar working class. By the late seventies members of this group, and those that they had educated, became the basis of a new style of labour movement activism. These tertiary educated radicals provided the base of the new Labour left of the 1980s.
A major force behind the ideology and ethos of this movement was radical social historiography as inspired by Thompson’s work.This tradition equated Marxist intellectual practice with radical social history, a history that would chronicle the emergence of the working class and its eventual rise to self-awareness. This history inspired a particular style of political activism. The history of the Labour Party and the labour movement was defined not a set of discrete conjunctions of events but rather as an evolutionary process possessed of its own inherent progressive dynamic. This tradition had its heroes, most notably Tony Benn, but they were regarded as the personification of a movement. Benn always strove to counter the media’s identification of the Labour left with his personal support base, and he was always critical of how the Labour left of the 1950s had defined itself around loyalty to Aneurin Bevan rather than popular struggles outside parliament.
From within the class politics perspective of British Marxism there was little space for biography. The Communist historian Dona Torr presented Tom Mann’s life as the personification of the inevitable rise of the working class.The former Communist John Saville could justify a Dictionary of Labour Biography only as offering ‘new emphases within labour movement historiography.’ In Australia, Eric Fry, one of the pioneers of the social history turn in Australian labour history, and another former Communist, argued that the biographical form could explain little without a consideration of the circumstances in which leaders operated. Introducing a collection of biographical essays on Rebels and Radicals , Fry argued that the value of the collection lay in restoring to public notice aspects of Australian history omitted by the historians of the ruling class. As a postgraduate at Cambridge in the 1970s, Stuart Macintyre was influenced by the traditions of British Marxism. His first work after his return to Australia was a biography of the Communist unionist Paddy Troy. Macintyre confronted the question of why a biography of Troy was worthwhile, given his apparent insignificance on the national stage compared to many more moderate labour leaders. Macintyre argued that the significance of such later figures was illusory for their success was achieved only ‘through the politics of accommodation, guided by the calculus of the lowest common denominator, only within these narrow limits can he impose his will on events’, the labour movement was impelled forward by ‘the vigorous tributaries and turbulent eddies that feed it and impel it onwards. Paddy chose to be tossed and buffeted on one of the streams that are the real forces of change’.
Biography and Effective Leadership
The class determinist model of labour biography was challenged by an alternative tradition, which looked back to those socialists who criticised the determinism of Second International Marxism from both the revisionist right and the revolutionary left. Many of the Bolsheviks’ early admirers such as Gramsci and Karl Korsch interpreted Bolshevism as a reaction against the mechanist determinism of orthodox Marxism. Gramsci insisted that ‘political action tends precisely to rouse the masses from passivity…to destroy the law of large numbers’.
Both Korsch and Gramsci drew on non-Marxist traditions of Fabian socialism and radical liberalism. Both movements challenged the political passivity of orthodox Marxism. The early work of Vere Gordon Childe was an Australian version of this new activist socialism. Childe gave a prominent and positive role to individual leadership in explaining the dilemmas of the labour movement. He argued that the caucus system clashed with men of ‘outstanding ability’ who did not want to accept guidance from those of less ability and who were therefore driven from the party. A ‘truly great…leader’ was one such as T. J. Ryan who can steer between servility to caucus and desertion. The young Childe believed in the possibility of reform by Labor governments providing they were effectively led. Twenty years later Childe’s university contemporary H. V. Evatt took a similar approach in his biography of Holman, which contrasted with Ross’ Marxist study of William Lane. Holman was a NSW Labor Premier who had broken with Labor over conscription. As a ‘labor rat’ he was a striking choice for a labour historian, although Evatt himself had won re-election to State parliament in 1927 against the endorsed Labor candidate. Evatt considered that Holman’s fate belonged in a ‘case book, which would illuminate many aspects of social democratic leadership.’ Evatt placed great emphasis on the role of the individual: ‘What was achieved by Australian labour was achieved by men of courage, imagination and integrity. Similarly, where there was failure, it was caused or contributed to by the weakness and errors of individuals’. Evatt was aware that the decision of a labour leader to desert their party is rarely the result of ‘black treachery.’ In a controversial formulation, he argued that the split in the labour movement over conscription had not arisen over fundamental disagreements and that on both sides ‘there was an intermingling of passion and sentiment, of jealously and resentment. The spirit of disinterestedness was absent.’ Evatt drew the conclusion that the victory of the labour movement required both ‘courageous leadership and loyal devotion.’
In his 1939 preface to the work of his friend Brian Fitzpatrick, entitled British Imperialism and Australasia, Evatt shed some light on the theory underpinning his model of biography. He praised Fitzpatrick for demonstrating the fundamental importance of the economic factor in Australian history but argued that Fitzpatrick remembered “the warning of Engels that ‘history makes itself in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each again has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. There are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant the historical event’. Evatt probably misread Engels whose argument was closer to the contention of the ‘law of large numbers’: that the apparent free choice of individual agents cancelled each other out, and that historical dynamics could thus only be explained by reference to laws operating independently of the consciousness of individuals. Fitzpatrick’s own approach was closer to the intention of Engels. Evatt’s sympathetic portrayal of the Labor ‘rat’ Holman had attracted negative comment at the time from Fitzpatrick.
An historical approach that stresses the efficacy of leadership is an optimistic one. Its proponents are likely to be thrown into intellectual and sometimes personal crisis, if the leadership that they have been sympathetic towards proves ineffective. They are likely to move back towards a determinist model. Once the Bolsheviks had secured power, determinist Marxism offered a solace for the failure of the utopian hopes of 1917. The extreme determinism of Deutscher was an attempt to salvage belief in the Bolshevik cause in the face of its tragic outcome. Childe and Evatt trod a similar path away from their early activist model of leadership.
As a Labor leader Evatt found his own leadership ineffective. His Labor critics see a contrast between his sympathetic attitude to Holman and his attitude during the Labor Split of 1954-55. Whether or not this is a fair judgement, Evatt’s leadership failed to prevent the Split and he came to rely heavily on Fitzpatrick’s support.Fitzpatrick, like many of Evatt’s later admirers, presented him as a martyr struck down by evil. Like Trotsky Evatt became an object of intellectual fascination. Evatt’s biographers present him as tragic hero, defying a country of sheep and scouring a path through the soil of mediocrity and defeating, if only for a time, those who sought to make Labor a party indistinguishable from the conservatives.
Childe’s own intellectual trajectory resembled that of Evatt’s in some ways. He moved away from his early political optimism and his insistence on the possibilities of leadership to a position of political withdrawal. In 1950, he argued that anyone who had ever been involved in political activism would know how difficult it was to achieve any result, and how what was achieved would often be the opposite of what was intended. Questions of motive and personality in history, he argued, were futile speculations. Childe was unable to consistently maintain this pessimism, for after echoing Plekhanov’s dismissal of the individual, he praised Stalin for his creative use of Marxist theory to predict the course of world history. The Communist Maurice Dobb, writing around the same time, was similarly cautious on the role of the individual, but admitted that in certain rare circumstances the actions of an individual could have an epoch-making effect. More recent structuralist Marxist writing, and later post-structuralist work, has echoed this ambiguity. Louis Althusser dismissed Plekhanov’s examination of the role of the individual in history as a false problem that ‘compares the theory of one object with the empirical existence of another’. But this opposition of theory and the empirical opened the way for the empirical voluntarism of Maoism.
In Foucault’s anti-humanism, individuals appeared as mere points of density in a social field. The record of the twentieth century, however, provides more evidence for the argument of Max Weber and Carl Schmitt that would define individuals as physical entities existing in space and time, whose existence can be ended by the action of physical force. The most recent attempt to solve the problem of the individual within a perspective inspired by Marx and Foucault is Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s espousal of a ‘humanist anti-humanism’, but like Childe’s late work it states a problem without providing a solution. It is incorrect to equate the early work of Childe with Robert Michel’s pessimistic theory of the inevitable bureaucratisation of the labour movement, as argued by Kenneth Maddock, however Childe’s later attitude towards communism does resemble Michels’ later sympathy towards fascism as the dynamic force that could resist tendencies towards bureaucratisation and rationalisation. The attempt in both cases was doomed, as much as Gregory Melleuish’s attempt to enlist Childe as an inspiration for his implausible attempt to give a humanist gloss to Hayekian liberalism.
After the split of 1955 some Labor activists such as Jim Cairns, argued that political labour must prepare itself for a long period of opposition in which it would educate the electorate to socialism. According to Cairns, Labor’s woes were the result of historical forces beyond its control and at the time Labor could have secured electoral victory only by conforming to the status quo. From within this tradition Evatt’s career was studied not as an example of leadership, as Evatt attempted in his study of Holman, but as an example of the clash of eternal right and eternal wrong. Evatt’s most recent biographers condemn Peter Crockett’s psychobiography of Evatt for concentrating on trivia which ‘belittles the significance and achievements of the subject of the biography…The hard fact that it is deeds and their effects that count – no matter how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the person – is pushed into the background.’ For them, Evatt’s example serves as a challenge to conservatism of contemporary Labor. Gough Whitlam who, like Evatt, had risen to power extolling a philosophy of activist leadership and political efficacy, would find his fall interpreted in a similar light to Evatt’s, as the triumph of evil over good, most notably by Manning Clark. In labour biography, this approach defines the subject as the hero of an alternative history whose standards are not those of worldly success but fidelity to principle. This position can be presented as valuing the purity of opposition to the responsibilities of power, but there were valid arguments that Evatt’s leadership had by defeating the outlawing of the Communist Party and defeating the drive of the movement for power within the Labor Party made a more significant contribution to Australia’s national welfare than would have been made by a Labor government that accepted the terms of the political debate set by the political right.
Cairns’s concern about long-term opposition was a response to Labor’s political weakness in the aftermath of the Split. It legitimated the position of the left within the party. The impetus for a renewed focus on leadership would come from historians unsympathetic to the dominant groups in the post-Split ALP. These historians aspired to give guidance to the labour movement. Verity Burgmann calls them the ‘labourist’ historians, but they were social democratic in their concern with leadership. From the 1960s to the 1980s, these authors sought guidance from history as to how Labor could win elections and govern effectively. Bede Nairn celebrated NSW Labor’s success. Dennis Murphy pondered how Queensland Labor could escape the doldrums. From labour biography these biographers, and their readers, such as Bob Carr or Peter Beattie, sought the secrets of effective leadership and warnings against destructive leadership. More recently Harry Knowles has continued this tradition in his argument that labour biography should focus on comparative studies of leadership.
The first of these labourist biographers was Leslie Crisp, whose biography of Chifley inspired many in the ALP of the 1960s. To Crisp, Chifley was ‘a natural leader who yet never lost the capacity to express, with sure intuition and blunt directness, the authentic attitudes and aspirations of even his least articulate followers.’ How this skill was developed is unexplained: ‘Since he lived for politics, this is pretty much a purely political biography. Since he was a deeply empirical and reflective man, certain phases of his long and grueling apprenticeship to power are of crucial importance for understanding the leader of 1945-51’. Bede Nairn’s biography of Jack Lang provided an example of destructive labour leadership. Lloyd Ross began work on a biography of John Curtin in 1945 but did not complete it until 1977. The final work was a substantial shift from his Marxist analysis of Lane. Curtin appears as a consistent upholder of socialist values, and ‘primarily and basically responsible for the leadership that united and inspired Australia.’ As Ross’ own biographer, Stephen Holt, has argued, Ross’ study of Curtin foundered on the difficulty of demonstrating a continuity in Curtin’s career from radical socialist to wartime prime minister.
It was the Queensland historian and ALP activist Denis Murphy who developed this social-democratic model of biography to its highest point. Murphy wrote with the aspiration of reforming the moribund post-Split Queensland ALP, where the victors of the Split retained control within the ALP for the longest period. Murphy was an exception to other Australian biographers in seeking an explicit theoretical basis for biography, which he found in the later work of the American philosopher Sidney Hook.
Hook’s shift to the political right from the late 1930s has meant that the remarkable originality of his contribution to Marxism has been neglected. His Towards an Understanding of Karl Marx published in 1933 proposed a redefinition of Marxism influenced by Korsch and American pragmatism. Hook gave specific attention to the problem of biography and history. In arguing for a non-determinist reading of historical materialism, Hook cited the same words of Engels to which Evatt later referred. Hook argued that Marx had correctly rejected the theory that history is the work of great persons, but although most persons were created by society, some individuals such as Marx or Lenin had exercised a significant independent impact on history. To reject this was to espouse a mechanical reading of historical materialism that defined society as an unhistorical totality. In 1933 the then pro-Communist Hook eschewed any reference to Trotsky’s contemporary writings but his arguments resembled the conclusions the exiled Trotsky had reached. Trotsky had changed his position since his days of triumph when he had downplayed the role of the individual in history. In 1930 Trotsky publicly declared that if Lenin had not been present the Bolshevik revolution might not have happened for many years. In private he was even more forthright arguing that the revolution would not have occurred if not for Lenin’s presence. Deutscher rejected this argument and cited Plekhanov against Trotsky. Carr, despite his admiration of Deutscher, was troubled by the question of the role of individual in history; in particular, the impact of Lenin’s early death, but never resolved this issue to his satisfaction. From within the Marxist tradition the key to accepting an independent role for political leadership, and thus accepting biography, as a valid project, was to accept that Stalinism was more than a detour on the preordained historical road. Contemporary revolutionary Marxists, such as Alex Callinicos, recall the arguments of Korsch and Gramsci and argue in defence of the later Trotsky that Marxism is not a teleological philosophy of history and that there are times when the contribution of the individual can be crucial. Like Evatt and Childe, Trotsky was unable to sustain his commitment to an activist model of leadership and moved back towards a determinist approach. In his later work, Stalin’s political triumph was explained as the inevitable manifestation of the rise of a new bureaucratic stratum rather than Stalin’s political skills and Trotsky’s lack of them.
As Hook moved from Marxism to social democracy, he strengthened his emphasis on the individual. In The Hero in History, published in 1955, Hook asserted that an individual can be event-making and influence the historical process by their outstanding capacities of intelligence and will, and identified Lenin as one such individual. Hook was a ferocious controversialist to whom ambiguity or caution was foreign. He tended to associate political efficacy with an entirely unified self. From statements by Communist leaders asserting the partisan character of knowledge, Hook concluded that Communist party members were unfit to teach. This conclusion contradicted the empirical research of fellow Cold War liberals such as Gabriel Almond who showed that Communist Party members frequently held views contradictory to party policy.
Murphy cited The Hero in History as an inspiration for his own work which sought to ‘look for the man or men (sic) who has those purposes and therefore made history’ and who had the ability ‘to see a particular political situation emerging and to grasp the opportunity to direct events along a path of his choosing.’ Following Hook, Murphy argued that men and women can only make history when they have purposes. Murphy’s model identified a particular group to whom purpose was essential: not the rank and file of the labour movement but Labor’s parliamentary leadership.
Murphy’s biography of Queensland Labor premier T. J. Ryan aspires to study the ‘contemporary influence of his decisions.’ The first chapter of the work is on the ALP rather than Ryan. Examination of Ryan’s personal life is eschewed: as Ryan ‘did not associate his home life very much with his political life, the former is only marginally mentioned.  For Murphy, and other social democratic biographers, a political life is judged by the extent to which the leader identifies the correct course of action. There may be deviations on this path. One is alcoholism. Ross’sCurtin and Blanche d’ Alpuget’s Hawke are different in style but both portray their subjects problems with alcohol as a struggle that ends with their self-control and ability to intervene effectively in events fully restored. Another potential obstacle is ideology. Murphy praised Andrew Dawson as a ‘reformer not an ideologue.’ The young Ross saw William Lane’s political failure as unavoidable. Murphy disagreed, he admitted that Lane was an inspiring visionary but believed his contribution had been overstated compared to those who undertook the less romantic but more difficult task of labour organisation. In this view, there is one correct course of political action, and political morality is defined as its implementation. Murphy’s critique of Ted Theodore centres not on his policy record but his absence of the personal skills necessary to facilitate the reconciliation of Labor idealism to ‘reality’. Writers such as Murphy and Nairn were sympathetic to the Labor right but their focus on leadership was echoed from the left by Bob Cooksey in his influential debunking of the Lang myth: Lang and Socialism. This work could be seen, at the time of its 1975 publication, as an example of new left themes in recovering a lost example of socialist possibility stymied by Labor politicians, but its sceptical interpretation of political motives and actions drew on Sydney libertarianism and the work of Henry Mayer.
The division between the public and private sphere evaporates when historians such as Murphy analyse their villains. Murphy criticised psychobiographers for misinterpreting the relevance of childhood events but argued that the 1957 split of Queensland Labor would not have occurred but for the ‘paranoia’ and desire for martyrdom of the men involved. The most enduring example of this approach has been the persistent attempt by authors such as Robert Murray to attribute the 1955 ALP split to mental derangement on Evatt’s part. To Crisp and Nairn, the achievement of their reformist vision is dependent on effective leadership and a rational electorate that would reject the demagogy of Lang or the deceptions of Menzies. Underlying this model is a gendered vision that opposes masculine sanity and rationality with feminine irrationality. Nairn discusses Lang’s childhood and the travails of his marriage with the intent of explaining his perceived destructive desire to bring down and humiliate those above him. Nairn also chides Holman for the vanity that led him to separate himself from the labour movement.
For Nairn, Crisp and Murphy, political efficacy is dependent on ‘personal integration’. The unconsciousness appears as a threat to political efficacy, as a zone of unrestrained passions and irrationalities. Freud argued however that the self was divided in a much more fundamental way than those who merely opposed the intellect to the passions recognised. To Freud, psychological mechanisms were like persons, the unconsciousness was not the locus of unrestrained passions but a creative intellectual partner that invented jokes, plotted dreams and censored memories. In this model, self-knowledge is not a matter of restoring the true human rational self to control, rather it is a matter of mutual learning from plural identities. In the case of the good men of the labour movement the division between public and private is rigorously upheld by social-democratic biographers. Nairn’s work is peppered with pen-portraits of men, such as Chris Watson, blessed with ‘physical strength, a well-adjusted personality and a down-to-earthiness that stopped far short of cynicism.’ In this approach, social democrats shared common ground with many male communists. Their autobiographies aspired to justify the political struggle to the writer and were frequently dismissive of the ‘private’ sphere. Behind these visions of labour biography is a vision of the individual that is Marxist in form. To Marx, the communist individual would be integrated and fully self-aware and capable of acting to bring social processes entirely under conscious human control. The overthrow of capitalism would end human pre-history and implement the beginning of ‘history’. What empirical historians identified as a series of events was rather a process that culminated in communism. The Communist men and women of the future would be like the giants of the Hellenic and Renaissance ages. Marx assumes that it is possible for men and women to achieve excellence simultaneously in all aspects of life. In Stalinist discourse the gap between the socialist aspiration of collective control over social processes and the chaos and confusion of Soviet life in the 1930s was ‘explained’ at the level of biography. The confessions of the victims of the purges explained history as the product of individual treachery.
The future of labour biography is dependent on challenging the concept of the unified self. The labour leader aspires to overcome personal constraints and control their personal and social environment, the failure of this aspiration leads to personal and political crisis. Biography should, as James Walter argued, recognise that personal weaknesses and strengths are inherently linked. Biography can never be an account of perfect personal integration or political success. In his biography of Evatt, Peter Crockett rejects previous interpretations of Evatt as an individual fundamentally opposed to his time. Rather he portrays Evatt as ‘An outsider but not an individual out of his time, he was appropriate to his era as an unappreciated visionary. Labour historians have been particularly prone to draw lessons from history and to write history as a tale of good and evil. In this project the attribution of blame to motives and actions has been a central component. Young American historians of the 1960s rejected Cold War interpretations of American communists as agents of a monolithic totalitarian conspiracy as empirically unfounded, citing historical evidence that depicted Communists as social movement activists. More recently however authors such as Harvey Klehr have argued that access to Soviet documents means that we can ‘see things as they actually were’. But the record of actions alone can never fully elucidate motive. Valuable as is Klehr’s work it leaves us without the grasp of Communist consciousness that biography can give us, as exemplified by the work of Edward Johanningsmeir on William Foster, Robert Levy on Ana Pauker or Kevin Morgan on Harry Pollitt. 
The writing of biography encourages, as Brian Mathews argues, the other selves of the writer to come to the surface. This is particularly the case for a labour historian who considers their work a form of personal activism. In responding to these other selves, the biographer may find him or herself unable to progress. Ross struggled to complete his biography of Curtin and never finished his planned biography of his father. The young Nairn took his mother’s side in family politics, supporting Chifley against his Langite father. As a biographer, Nairn’s first subject was Lang, and his foreshadowed biography of Watson has never appeared.
The great questions that preoccupied twentieth-century Marxist discussions of the role of the indivdual now seem far distant. At least Australian labour historians are able to return to the familiar topic of a labour movement in retreat and disarray. Both the optimistic activism of Murphy and Crisp and the revolutionary determinism of Deutscher and Carr now seem dubious. They assume that there is an unproblematic concept of the social good. Contrary to Freudian-Marxists, it cannot be argued that differentiation within the self is merely an internalisation of the repression required by a class society. Human experience suggests that there is a multitude of forms of ‘the good life’. The choice between ways of life, as John Gray has argued, frequently requires radical and tragic choices between competing excellences or great evils each of which involves some great loss.
Manning Clark’s famous discovery of the flaws in the clay can be seen as exploring the idea of the inherently disunited and conflictual self. Clark was not, as John Hirst argued, a frustrated biographer. John Rickard is correct to argue that Clark’s concern was not with individuals as such but ‘with the repetitions that make for tragedy and myth.’ It is a historiographical cliché to identify actions by an individual that contradict their values, an approach favoured by David Day. I would rather agree with Bill Thorpe, who criticises Roger Joyce for being so preoccupied by his attempt to refute the conventional image of the Queensland Governor George Bowen as an autocrat that he fails to perceive his subject as a ‘contradictory unity’. I would suggest that all individuals should be understood as contradictory unities. There were times when, as Clark’s conservative critics observe, his view of the human tragedy, and of the Soviet experience in particular, seemed to echo Deutscher, reducing historical tragedy to the middle act in a play of happy endings. Despite this, it is likely that Clark’s conservative critics are the most dogmatic of believers in happy endings.
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*My thanks are due to John Lack of the History Department at the University of Melbourne for comments on an earlier version of this paper.
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