Ian Alexander Hamilton Turner (1922–1978)

ian-turner-03Turner graduated LLB (1948) and BA (Hons) (1949) from the University of Melbourne, where he studied history under Max Crawford, Percy Partridge and Manning Clark. He took his PhD at the Australian National University in 1963. After lecturing in history at the University of Adelaide, he came to Monash in 1964, the first Australian-earned PhD appointment to be made in History, and was promoted to Associate Professor in 1969, a position he occupied until his sudden death in 1978.

Turner’s undergraduate studies at the University of Melbourne, commenced in 1940, were interrupted by his wartime service in the AIF. Returning to the University in 1945, he became variously co-editor of Farrago, joint secretary of the University Labor Club, and secretary and president of the Students’ Representative Council. He participated actively in the Australian Student Labour Federation and the National Union of Students, and became a member of the Communist Party of Australia (1943). It was a habit of involvement that continued throughout his life. As Don Watson wrote of him (1979: 84), ‘engagement was an imperative, not a choice’.

On graduation, in 1948, he started but abandoned an MA and instead became a cleaner for the Victorian Railways and later chairman of the Federal Council of shop stewards. No stranger to controversy, he was dismissed by the Victorian Railways amid allegations of political victimisation; in 1958 he was expelled from the Communist Party for organising a demonstration in support of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and for his ‘revisionism’. In 1959 he returned to the ANU to complete his PhD under Sir William Keith Hancock.

Research expertise:

Writing in the Oxford Companion to Australian History, Stuart Macintyre describes Turner as ‘The most versatile and responsive of the Old Left historians’ (2001: 653). Turner embraced the radical nationalist tradition and, according to Lloyd Churchward, ‘occupied a front place among Australian labour historians for almost two decades’ (1979: 53). Turner provided his own explanations of what these descriptors meant to him personally as a historian: ‘Radical nationalism—which is both a way of looking at the past and a programme for the future … leads towards a political strategy which is based in present realities and to an attempt to redefine socialist means and ends in terms of a tradition which incorporates whatever is valuable in Australia’s past … and which carries a specific Australian resonance’. Of labour history he wrote, ‘Labour history has a special attraction because of the high aspirations of the movement, which traditionally seeks not just to change governments but to change society’ (1979: 93).

Turner belonged to a generation of left-wing intellectuals who were associated with the Communist Party. Obituaries make it clear that his scholarly writings came out of his political convictions and that, accordingly, they and he attracted both praise and vilification (Watson 1979: 84). Though he published some articles in scholarly journals such as the Australian Journal of History, Historical Studies, Labour History, and the Journal of Australian Studies, he mostly published essays, reviews and commentaries in more widely-read or radical magazines, including Outlook, Overland (which he co-founded with Stephen Murray-Smith), Arena (he was a member of the editorial board and a frequent contributor), Meanjin, Nation, Australian Rationalist, Bulletin, Intervention and the Australian Book Review. Macintyre finds some of his finest writing in these essays and reviews, in which ‘he responded generously and perceptively to new political and artistic forms, always maintaining his commitment to a democratic and accessible culture (2001: 653). A complete issue of Overland was dedicated to his memory (nos. 76-77, October 1979). It includes essays by and about Turner, memorial tributes, poems, and a bibliography of his published writings as well as reproductions of portraits by Fred Williams, Noel Counihan and Cliff Pugh.

As a colleague and friend, Turner was eulogised for his kindness and warm generosity (Serle, 1979); at Monash he was remembered as an original, brilliant and inspiring teacher and an outstanding supervisor of honours and postgraduate students (Waterson 2002). In his second year Australian History course, he encouraged students to tape interviews of people’s experiences in the Great Depression; this was in the very early days of oral history. His annual (from 1965 to 1978) Barassi Memorial Lecture in Melbourne’s Grand Final Week, ‘a satirical piece of showmanship in which [wearing a Richmond beanie, beer can in hand] he discussed the academic implications of football’ (Obit, Canberra Times, 30 December 1978: 14) was one of the highlights of the academic year attracting students (and staff) from all faculties in such large numbers that the event was moved to the Blackwood Hall. David Williamson recalled his contribution as chairman of the Australia Council shortly after its foundation in the early 1970s: ‘he brought … a sense of sanity, a sense of calm, dispassionate analysis, and set in motion important structural reforms which enable the council to function more successfully from that moment on (Overland, 1979: 11).


As author:

Industrial Labour and Politics: The Labour Movement in Eastern Australia 1900–1921 (1965; revised edition, 1979); Sydney’s Burning (1967; revised, 1969); Peter Lalor (1974); In Union is Strength: A History of Trade Unions in Australia 1788–1974 (1976; 1979).

As co-author/editor:

The Great Depression (ed. with L.J. Louis) (1968); The Australian Dream (ed.) (1968); Australian Graffiti (with Rennie Ellis) (1975; 1986); Cinderella Dressed in Yella (with June Factor and Wendy Lowenstein) (1978); Up where Cazaly?: The Great Australian Game (with Leonie Sandercock) (publ. posthumously, 1981).


Obituaries: Monash Reporter, March 1979 (An Appreciation by Geoffrey Serle); Overland 76/77 (Oct 1979) (memorial double issue); Age (Melbourne), 28, 29 December 1978; Canberra Times, 30 December 1978: 14; Arena 52 (1979), 49-53 (Lloyd Churchward); Intervention 12 (April 1979) 84-85 (Don Watson)

General: National Times, 12−18 September 1982; D.B. Waterson, ‘Turner, Ian Alexander Hamilton (1922−1978), Australian Dictionary of Biography 16 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002), 424−5, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/turner-ian-alexander-hamilton-11895; Stuart Macintyre, ‘Turner, Ian Alexander Hamilton’, in Oxford Companion to Australian History, ed. Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (Oxford University Press, 2001): 653; Stuart Macintyre, ‘Radical History and Bourgeois Hegemony’, Intervention 2 (October 1972), 47−73; ‘The Making of the Australian Working Class: an historiographical survey’; Historical Studies 18/7 (October 1978) 233−53. Turner’s papers are in the NLA.

Selected monographs:

Industrial Labour and Politics: The Dynamics of the Labour Movement in Eastern Australia, 1900−1921 (Canberra: ANU; Cambridge UP, 1965), xv, 272 pp.

The main theme of Industrial Labour and Politics, Turner’s PhD thesis published, is the running fight between the industrial and political wings of the Australian labour movement in the period 1910 to 1921. It also deals with the conscription crisis of the First World War, the activities of the I.W.W., the efforts to form One Big Union, the socialist sects that proliferated before the War and the formation of the Australian Communist Party. J.D.B. Miller (1966: 764) found the book to be ‘probably the best yet produced in the long catalogue of studies of the Australian Labour movement … The writing is sharp and felicitous, the research exact, the tone moderate yet imbued with feeling.’ Other critics were not so kind, responding adversely and sometimes adversarially to Turner’s contention that labour history is ‘almost necessarily partisan’ (p. xviii). One wrote (Portus 1967: 334), ‘The main defect of the book is the author’s bias which shines throughout like a red light and is irritating.’ The book continued to be the subject of interest and controversy (Farrell 1980: 107).

In a new introduction to the second edition (reproduced in Intervention 12, April 1979: 86−94), written shortly before he died, Turner attempted to answer his various critics, academic and political, retracting some of his earlier statements, modifying, supplementing and defending others. Reviewing the second edition, Frank Farrell (1980:108) concluded that ‘Despite its blemishes [the book] is still one of the most detailed studies available on the labour movement’s response to the first world war. It is a valuable book also because of the light it throws on the structure and interaction of the forces of division in the labour movement, so often manifested in this century in the ALP’s tendency to split asunder. It will remain a controversial book because its overtly Marxist-Leninist assumptions make it of interest to all students of politics and Australian historiography.’ It was a book of the early 1960s and as such, in Robin Gollan’s opinion (1979:78), remains a profoundly important work.

Reviews: Labour History 10 (May 1966), 65−8 (Peter Macarthy); The Australian Quarterly 38/2 (June 1966), 119−20 (J.C. Ryan); International Affairs 42/4 (October 1966), 763−4 (J.D.B. Miller); Industrial and Labor Relations Review 20/2 (January 1967), 333−4 (John Portus); Labour History 38 (May 1980), 107−08 (Frank Farrell; 2nd edition).

Sydney’s Burning (London, Melbourne etc: William Heinemann Ltd., 1967), xv, 254 pp.

An offshoot of Turner’s first book, Sydney’s Burning is a ‘dramatic entertaining account’ (Baker 1967:22) of the repression of the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical group active in Australia during the First World War. It deals with the arrest, conviction and eventual release of the ‘I.W.W.Twelve’, who were tried for arson and seditious conspiracy in 1916. This group of ‘Wobblies’, as they were called, decided to try and burn capitalism out. After a series of fires in Sydney, the authorities took advantage of public panic and convicted the twelve on various charges of arson and sedition. ‘It is more than a crime story’, Turner wrote in the introduction to the book, ‘it is a story of the politics of crime, and, if you like, of the crime of politics—of why men who dream of a better future become criminals, and of how society makes a political issue of their crimes.’ The story was confused, the evidence dubious and Turner decided, in the interests making the book ‘as readable as possible’, to write without extensive footnote documentation of his sources. Nonetheless, the book ‘carries a strong story line as well as close analysis of difficult and scrappy evidence’ (Gollan 1979, 73). Robin Gollan went on to conclude that ‘It is not so important in a general sense as Industrial Labour but it is a fine piece of investigative writing’.

Review: ‘Australian Anarchists’, Woroni (Canberra), 28 September 1967: 22 (Tony Baker).

As a labour historian, Turner devoted himself to an exploration of the left in Australian history and politics; later his scholarly interests shifted towards cultural history and popular culture, which he expanded to include children’s play-rhymes, Australian Rules football and graffiti—see, for example, his ground-breaking interpretative essay in the collection of Australian children’s play rhymes Cinderella dressed in yella (which he co-edited with June Factor and Wendy Lowenstein, 1969). Turner’s books mostly reflect the Leninist outlook of his early years, associated with his time in the Communist Party. In his writings at Monash he moved to a more open ‘cultural’ reading of Marxism, of the kind associated in the larger historical world with scholars like E.P. Thompson, and took on a more open and pragmatic character. His ‘academic’ output, though small in volume, was very influential and he was often a most penetrating commentator. His enthusiastic embrace of popular culture, for example, laid the foundation for later work in cultural history by scholars like John Rickard and Richard White. Lloyd Churchward paid tribute to his writing and his influence (‘second only to Brian Fitzpatrick’): ‘His writing is not fully Marxist but it is not merely empiricist and it is never dull. It is radical history of a very fine order’ (1979: 53).



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