When Rowan Cahill first asked whether I would be interested in reading and reviewing his and Terry Irving’s The Barber Who Read History: Essays in Radical History, I signed on without hesitation. Almost immediately, a series of questions passed through my head that will be instantly recognisable to fellow denizens of the modern academy: ‘Which journal should I publish this in?’; ‘Maybe Capital & Class? Or perhaps New Political Economy, as it has a higher impact factor’; ‘Which outlet would look best on my publication record?’ Of course, I, like most of my peers, recognise to a degree the artificiality of these considerations. In our better moments, we like to think that the value of our ideas should be assessed by reference to their impact on, and intelligibility to, everyday people and the community at large. We intuitively know that impact factors, high-priced monographs and articles locked behind paywalls are the tolls we pay to the boatman that is multinational academic publishers. And yet, all too often we allow these essentially corporate logics to colonise our thinking. We are seemingly caught in a game that, despite our professed desire not to play, nevertheless succeeds in structuring our actions and impoverishing our research.
I got exactly seven pages into the book before I got the rebuke I needed from Cahill and Irving. After introducing the depredations of the neoliberal university, they issue a call to arms for scholars, both within and outside the academy. Of the former they state that their task will be ‘to reclaim the universities for learning and scholarship by resisting the current neoliberal, audit culture; and to orientate their teaching and research to the autonomous intellectual sphere generated by the struggles of movements for social change outside the academy’. Radical scholars ‘must research, write, publish and work in ways that do challenge capitalism and address social justice issues, and actually reach out to, and engage with, audiences wider than self-referential niches’. My choice to publish this review here, on a wide-ranging, influential and most significantly free political economy blog is one small way in which I have tried to answer Cahill and Irving’s call.
Broadly, the book is a collection of essays and papers that the authors produced during and after the publication of their magisterial Radical Sydney: Places, Portraits and Unruly Episodes (UNSW Press, 2010), also reviewed HERE. As with any such anthology, the coherence of the book stems not from incremental, linear development of a central argument, but by reflections, taken from different times and places, on several key themes. The various chapters are organised conceptually around these themes, with Part 1 largely dealing with the issues of the modern academy and ways to surmount them; Part 2 traces the provenance of labour history study in Australia and how it might be reinvigorated by the reclamation of roots in a radical approach to history; Part 3 canvases the concepts and practices of radical history and its place in the firmament of Australian historical research on such things as violence, class and the Australian Labor Party; Part 4 essentially provides the biographies of several radical historians from whom we might still learn, including E.P. Thompson, Rupert Lockwood, and Bob Walshe; finally Part 5 rounds out the book by returning to its premises in the respective histories of the authors.
To attempt to do justice to The Barber Who Read History in the space of this short review is obviously an impossible task. Reviews of books collected from numerous papers published over a period of years will at their peril treat them as monoliths capable of simple recount. Instead, I wish to organise my thoughts on the book by reference to a poem I happened to be reading by happy chance, T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from ‘The Rock’. Two passages in particular instantly brought the book to mind. In discussing the individual versus the collective inheritance of man, Eliot wrote:
For good and ill deeds belong to a man alone, when
he stands alone on the other side of death.
But here upon earth you have the reward of the good and
ill that was done by those who have gone before you.
And all that is ill you may repair if you walk together in
humble repentance, expiating the sins of your fathers;
And all that was good you must fight to keep with hearts
as devoted as those of your fathers who fought to
gain it’ (emphasis added).
I think these words of Eliot go to the heart of the project that is at the centre of The Barber Who Read History. The book inserts itself into the living tradition of radical history, a tradition the authors see as embedded in telling the stories of the disempowered and marginalised through partisan histories that serve as spurs to action in the present moment. It seeks to preserve the best of this tradition, not out of an antiquarian desire to glorify what is lost, but as a source of current political inspiration and instruction. This theme finds particular expression in Parts 2, 3 and 4. Chapters 5 and 7, for example, focus upon the foundation story of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History and its flagship journal Labour History. As against a current esoteric and etiolated view of labour history as the history of unions and the Labor Party, Irving (the author of these chapters) shows the deeply political Cold War environment in which founders such as Eric Fry operated, with their commitment to historical research designed to aid the working-class earning them infiltration by ASIO spooks. Their dedication to the political nature of their task in the face of state supervision and repression is used as a timely reminder of the vocation labour history used to exercise (and perhaps still could).
This same understanding of the necessity of understanding our past as a tool to current praxis underlies the series of useful biographies in Part 4. By far the most interesting is Cahill’s exploration of Robert Daniel ‘Bob’ Walshe in Chapter 21, variously ‘factory labourer, soldier, communist, activist, pamphleteer, teacher, editor, publisher, historian, educationist, environmentalist’. Cahill concludes this chapter with a touching extract from personal correspondence with Walshe, whereby the latter defined the task of historians as needing to find ‘times in the past when the best of humanity, struggling against privilege, greed, oppression, war, find reason to affirm again the confident humanism of the Enlightenment, its critical rationalism and its exciting science, its faith in giving direction by democratic agency to society’s incessant change, thereby to release energy in a reader to be active in the cause of human betterment’. This is the essence of radical history, as it is also the essence of The Barber Who Read History.
Walshe’s observation of the presence of privilege, greed, oppression and war links to the second passage of Eliot’s that pricked my ears to what is an essential theme in the book:
‘The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change.
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.’
Although a metaphysical observation at odds with the authors’ materialist methods, there is a sense of a similar kind of history in the book itself. Both of the authors are long-serving (and suffering) leftist intellectuals and activists – their work is the product of forms of knowledge that must be earned as well as studied. The sense of their own histories, along with the ebbs and flows of the class struggle, resonate strongly throughout the book, particularly in Part 5. Unlike the tepid postmodern and poststructural theories that find themselves cut off from an analysis of social power in a mire of discourse and representation, Cahill and Irving do not resile from naming the oppressive forces that radical scholars seem to be in perpetual struggle against – the neoliberal university and its bloated corporate robber-barons; multinational publishing giants that turn enormous profits monopolising research largely conducted with public money; the state and the discreditable people it puts in its employ. If radical history is to serve the functions Cahill and Irving expect of it, then precisely this willingness to identify and label the key players, the good guys and the villains, is required.
Through the union of these two themes, Cahill and Irving hope to spare us the fate of “the barber who read history.” Knowing the authors’ work in Radical Sydney, I came to the book half-expecting some anecdote about a radical barber in 1930s Sydney whose shop served as a meeting-place for Communist fellow-travellers. I was surprised to learn in Chapter 1 that Rowan was actually in receipt of a haircut from said barber. Upon learning that his customer is a history teacher, he launched into a monologue. I will let Rowan take over:
…take the anti-gun people all over the place, don’t we understand that disarming people is the first step towards authoritarianism?, a well-known lesson from history, then Michael Moore gets a serve, a well-known film-making fraudster who invents his facts and he is followed by George Orwell who knew a thing or two about governments and how they work, know why?, because he actually was one of them, really a government stooge, and did I know that the Jews and the Bankers actually got communism up and running…
I admit being disappointed that the barber of the title was essentially a fascist loon, but the reality of this man is more important in justifying the study of history from a radical perspective than any feel-good anecdote. Without an informed, self-aware, politically partisan and, perhaps most important, hopeful radical history at our disposal, our histories and our politics can become those of the barber. The Barber Who Read History is an invaluable contribution to the construction and maintenance of just such a radical history.