Barber authors give corporate universities a hair cut

For anyone interested in the writing of history, particularly in Australia’s universities, this book of essays is a welcome contribution.

In writing The Barber Who Read History, Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving provide an alternative radical philosophy and politics of writing history.

The book covers many topics and is divided into five parts: Shaping Times; Labour History and Radical History; Thinking, Writing and Engagement; Some Radical Historians; and Shaping Histories.

I’m going to comment on three main points that arise from the book: the problem for history-writing today, why these authors are worth listening to, and how we can learn from the past to change history and its recording today.

Starting with the current situation in neoliberal university life, the authors take us through why their “radical history” is more useful to humanity than to academia.

Their critique is spot-on explaining the transformation of universities from centres of learning, for all their faults, to multi-million dollar knowledge/research factories. Capitalism steals any control academics had over teaching and research and destroys the lives of those who labour for the benefit of students.

They damn the peer-review journal business, a supposedly objective but far from scientific practice, that excludes academics without financial resources but contributes nothing to the production of understanding.

… whether writing for other radical intellectuals, engaging with scholarship and theory, or seeking a wider audience, radical historians place a high value on clarity of expression, avoiding like the plague the over-theoretical language of academic in-groups, and their self-aggrandizing citation of trendy thinkers.

It is with disappointment that they report on the shifts in the Labour History journal toward academic styles. They also argue for a more expansive history broader than the traditional portrayal of the labour movement (which has often been defined as a white male working class) and more inclusive of issues of the oppressed including gender and “race”, and environment.

The authors discuss their own origins and reveal how people can become radicals; they are both veterans of the 1970s New Left with a wealth of experience. Challenging establishment education, both were founders of the Free University in Sydney, which ran a radical education program. Many of these essays were written during or after their previous collaboration on a history of radical spaces and events in Sydney.

Cahill and Irving argue for a partisan history that sides with the oppressed and exploited, as opposed to the traditional histories of those who would maintain capitalist order that dominate the mainstream.

Because of this experience living through a period of change which also changed the activists themselves, they know it can be done again and their message for would-be radical historians is: “… although writing about the past, they want to encourage people in the present to resist and rebel.”

The book refers us to many earlier and contemporary left wing and Marxist historians, arguing that history is not just about facts and events but also theory and engagement with political action.

Social futures are not pre-determined in human society; the present builds on the past and raises political questions.

One essay, “William Astley (Price Warung) and the Radical Invention of the Labor Party”, examines the origins of the Australian Labor Party, showing how 19th century activists dealt with the question of how the new colony that became Australia should be ruled.

While very few understood the need to side with the Aboriginal people, left wing workers argued for a democracy controlled by workers. An essay, “Rediscovering Radical History”, shows how these projects failed in their goals, disappointing radicals but providing important lessons for future socialists.

Undefined history

The authors do not, unfortunately, define radical democracy or key concepts like the working class. While arguing for an end to oppression and exploitation they don’t provide a clear vision of the radical democratic alternative.

I cannot help being reminded of the quandary of 19th century utopian socialists applauded by Marx and Engels for their recognition of the problems with exploitation and particularly women’s oppression but criticised for failing to provide a way forward.

In The Communist Manifesto, the working class is not only oppressed but, because of its exploitation by capital, capable of exercising enormous power in stopping profits, capital’s lifeblood.

While the conditions of working class existence are always changing as capitalism changes, the working class finds new ways to resist.

Today in the midst of a triple crisis of COVID, climate and economy, workers have potential power given their global reach and role not only as essential labour in care services but in strategical industries like “just-in-time” transport and Amazon warehouses, digitalised banking and education factories.

At one point in the book, the authors seem a bit pessimistic about the militancy of university workers. However, as I write this review, the workers at Sydney University are completing a very successful 48-hour strike backed with pickets.

This action is part of a new mood in some industrial sectors in the US and here, again showing the potential of the working class to renew itself and fight back with more power than the social movements.

The authors cut their political teeth during the 1970s when Australian workers did illustrate the power of labour to go beyond wages and conditions to the highly successful Green Bans and anti-uranium campaigns, to support Aboriginal Land Rights, abortion rights and to stop the Vietnam War.

Social movements when they unite can develop into socialist movements if the working class comes to the lead.

Those struggles were pregnant with the possibilities that Cahill and Irving speak of but failed to fully deliver.

That is why this book urges the reader to examine that past and take concrete steps from utopian visions to strategy. For that reason it’s a must-read.

It could be, but it’s not a manifesto—the authors have an alternative vision to the status quo and point to a strategy for change but stop short.

The Barber alludes to the Bertolt Brecht poem of 1935: Questions from a Worker Who Reads. It begins:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates? 
In the books you will read the names of kings. 
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

The social power encompassed in the creative power of labour can become a power that can stop capitalism and organise a new society.

Radical history can help us understand what we’re capable of today. Ruling class beware.

By Judy McVey

The Barber Who Read History: Essays in Radical History by Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving
Bull Ant Press, $30


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