Stuart Macintyre Was Australia’s Foremost Left-Wing Historian

Australian historian Stuart Macintyre passed away on Monday. A veteran of the New Left and the Communist Party of Australia, as a historian, writer, and political activist, Macintyre exemplified the spirit of solidarity at the heart of the workers’ movement.

Historian Stuart Macintyre, photographed in 2006. (Nicole Emanuel / Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

On Monday, November 22, Stuart Macintyre passed away after a relapse of cancer. With his death, the Australian left has lost a preeminent intellectual and historian.

Macintyre was more than a writer and researcher. His encyclopedic knowledge of Australian and working-class history was equaled only by his generosity as a teacher. He gave his time freely and magnanimously, and his dedication to imparting his knowledge and advice reflected the best traditions of the twentieth-century left.

Macintyre was prolific, the author of over a dozen books and editor of many more. Perhaps best known as the historian of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), Macintyre’s historical work is sweeping and magisterial, spanning immense cultural and political shifts without sacrificing nuance.

His first volume on the Australian Communist movement, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegality, is the definitive text on the CPA, the largest Communist Party in the Anglophone world relative to population. Fortunately, Macintyre was just able to finish his long-awaited second volume, The Party: The Communist Party of Australia from Heyday to Reckoning, which will be published by Allen & Unwin in February 2022.

I interviewed Stuart earlier in the year while he was completing this book, and our conversation spanned his whole career. Perhaps, however, the most fitting way to pay tribute is to focus on his involvement in the New Left in Australia in the late 1960s and in the UK throughout the 1970s. More than anything, Macintyre’s deep commitment to the New Left both reflected and shaped his spirit of solidarity, as well as his critical and principled political and intellectual outlook.

A Participant in History

One of the most remarkable things about Macintyre’s writing is how he brings it to life with portraits of individual participants without sacrificing the rigor of theoretically informed social history. As Macintyre wrote in The Reds:

I wanted to show how it was that Australians became communists, what that meant, what they sought to do, how far they succeeded, as well as suggest the far-reaching consequences of their endeavour. . . .  I have tried to evoke the milieu of Australian communism and at the same time tried to stand outside it and grasp it as a historical phenomenon.

The Reds is more than a history of the early CPA and its context. It also highlights the role of individual militants, their biographies, beliefs, and efforts. Macintyre focuses not just on party constitutions, conferences, and power shifts, but on the way in which party members articulated their commitments.

As a result, he captures how individual communists understood their political involvement. Their convictions lent the movement strength, while the experiences of defeat and betrayal challenged and sometimes shattered those convictions.

Macintyre was himself an active communist. While studying history at the University of Melbourne during the late 1960s, he developed an interest in “the Russian Revolution and communism as a world movement.” As he recounted, this coincided with becoming “very active in the Labor Club” — a student group dominated by communist, not Australian Labor Party, members. In 1968, Macintyre’s final year as a student, he served as the club’s president.

Although the Labor Club had organizational links with the CPA, it hosted talks by left-wing academics and politicians from a range of political backgrounds. Indeed, many Labor Club members, like Macintyre, had criticisms of the CPA, but joined the party because they believed it “was the largest surviving element of a working-class based party.”

Macintyre also saw opportunities to develop a critical intellectual culture in the party. He believed that under the leadership of Laurie Aarons between 1965 and 1976, a space opened in the party for a more theoretical current. Alongside other prominent figures in the Australian New Left such as Mick Counihan, Macintyre formed a reading group dedicated to studying the work of French Marxist Louis Althusser. Macintyre and his comrades also founded a journal named Intervention.

In The Reds, Macintyre wryly blends his interest in Althusserian Marxism with a moving acknowledgement of his wife, Martha Macintyre. “My wife Martha joined the party with me,” he writes,

and our shared discovery of communist ideals was part of our courtship. It gave us warm friendships that still endure, loyalties and interests that persist. Our only serious quarrel arose over my enthusiasm for that most doctrinaire of communist theoreticians, Louis Althusser.

In 1971, Macintyre joined the CPA’s Carlton Branch, describing his decision as “somewhat naïve.” He had recently completed an MA thesis at Monash University on John Strachey, a British Marxist MP and popularizer of socialist ideas who was prominent in the 1920s and ’30s. As a new party member, Macintyre was already distinguishing himself as a scholar of the movement.

An Antipodean Historian in England

Soon after joining the CPA, Macintyre went to England to work on his PhD at Cambridge University. There, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and involved himself in its intellectual life and the left milieu at Cambridge. His friendship circle linked together left-wing intellectuals, including the historian Gareth Stedman Jones, economist Bob Rowthorn, Marxism Today editor Martin Jacques, and CPGB student organizer Jon Bloomfield. Macintyre’s research also brought him in contact with the Communist Party Historians Group, including Monty Johnstone.

During his time in England, Macintyre came to know some of the most important British Marxists. As secretary of the CPGB’s Cambridge Branch, he regularly visited Marxist economist Maurice Dobb to collect his party dues and bring him copies of Plebs Magazine. Macintyre spoke fondly of Dobb’s encouragement.

While at Cambridge, Macintyre identified a division within the CPGB between what he called the “the liberals and the Tankies.” While critical of both camps, Macintyre remained a committed member and described the Cambridge Branch of the CPGB as a “hotbed” of radicalism. This nondogmatic intellectual culture, which helped nurture some of the British left’s most acute twentieth-century thinkers, was crucial to Macintyre’s development.

Alongside his academic work, Macintyre participated in broad-left activities with figures like Raymond Williams. He organized events and discussions even with radicals who had resigned from the CPGB, such as the Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, whose lecture he describes as follows:

We lured Edward Thompson back to Cambridge, to give a paper to the seminar that we put on. And as you can imagine, there’s a very large group of people crammed into the room and he was a rather theatrical character. He looked up and he said, “I always thought the only circumstances in which I’d return to Cambridge would be at the controls of a tank,” which was a good line.

A Proletarian Science

The open and nonsectarian intellectual culture in the British New Left framed Macintyre’s doctoral research that went on to form the basis of his first book, A Proletarian Science: Marxism in Britain 1917-1933, published in 1980. Initially, Macintyre had planned to write an intellectual history of interwar British Marxism, beginning in the 1920s. However, he soon discovered archives containing extensive records of the Labour College movement. The Labour Colleges were working-class educational institutions that, although a “minority presence,” were nevertheless firmly rooted in “sections of the British working class” before the Stalinization of the CPGB in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

A Proletarian Science is a reconstruction of radical working-class culture in Britain in the early twentieth century. Perhaps most importantly, Macintyre captures the self-understanding of the workers’ movement of this period, demonstrating that Marxism was anything but the preserve of the middle classes. In fact, the Marxist movement was deeply connected with working-class life, especially during the international upsurge of class struggle that followed the Russian Revolution.

Macintyre examines Marxism as a class culture, probing the texts that workers read, and exploring how individual workers, the Labour Colleges, and the party organized their own education. Chapters on “Historical Materialism” and “the dialectic” bring to life the way British workers learned and came to understand Marxism theoretically, not just politically.

In A Proletarian Science, Macintyre also criticized positivist and dogmatic conceptions of Marx’s thought which were then widespread, while carefully explaining how different intellectual contexts came to emphasize different aspects of Marxism. Macintyre paid close attention to the barriers posed by limited access to Marx’s writing and the fact that many key works were not yet translated into English. This forced Marxists to rely on limited translations or popular summaries, often published by the Soviet Union.

Many classic Marxist authors that we take for granted — including Rosa Luxemburg, György Lukács, Karl Korsch, and Antonio Gramsci — remained unknown. According to Macintyre, this is part of the explanation for the way that mid-century British Marxism tended to offer positivistic simplifications of Marxism, at times bordering on crude materialism.

At the same time, Macintyre retained a keen focus on the organic working-class intellectuals of the early twentieth century who discovered and studied Marxist texts, adapting them to the needs of their time. As he explained of this work:

I wanted to say something about the theoretical aspects of the movement. For instance, I wrote about how British workers read now quite obscure thinkers like Joseph Dietzgen, who was a much older Second International thinker. What did that do to me? It meant that I was doing social history as much as I was doing intellectual history. That was probably sensible because the field of social history was growing very rapidly. My next book, Little Moscows, was an exercise in social history of communist localities [small towns in Britain with strong communist subcultures were referred to as “Little Moscows”].

Return of the Prodigal Historian

Macintyre’s interests broadened over the course of his career. He wrote a number of more general histories, including A Concise History of Australia, which had reached its fifth edition by 2020. His prolific and incisive work won Macintyre a reputation as one of Australia’s leading historians. He received numerous prizes and an appointment at the University of Melbourne, where Macintyre taught for almost his entire career.

Macintyre’s political life, however, did not reach similar heights. After returning to Australia in 1980, he connected again with his friends in the CPA. Instead of rejoining, however, Macintyre joined the Socialist Left faction of the Australian Labor Party.

According to Macintyre, when CPA leader Bernie Taft asked him about rejoining the party, Macintyre explained that by then, doing so would have meant that

all of your energies were going to be absorbed in keeping alive something that was visibly in decline. I joined the Labor Party and I was active for a few years in the Socialist Left. Even there, I thought the quality of political discussion was abysmal. I was used to branch meetings [in the CPGB] where you discuss matters in a systematic, reasonably analytical way. Even if it might have been open to question, you would apply conceptual tools. I’ve never been to a Labor Party meeting where there’s a discussion of any great penetration.

This commitment to critical, intelligent discussion reflected the impact of the New Left on Macintyre’s intellectual life, as well as his lifelong support for working-class self-organization and education. Volume one of Macintyre’s history of the communist movement in Australia certainly provoked wide debate, and no doubt his second volume will do so as well. However, Macintyre’s skill for biography and his intellectual pluralism will ensure it is a crucial contribution.

Intellectual Generosity

As a historian, Macintyre was deeply principled and insisted on responding to disagreement carefully and openly. This approach shone through in his teaching. Macintyre was famously generous, and he saw assistance to younger researchers as an extension of his political and intellectual commitments. When supervising or giving academic advice, he never sought to impose his views, but rather to help you articulate what you wanted to say more powerfully and rigorously.

I first met Stuart while researching my PhD dissertation on Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx. I was looking for bibliographic information about an early English publication of Marx’s writings from the 1840s, translated by an English baker named H. J. Stenning in 1926. I emailed Stuart after reading an appendix to A Proletarian Science in which he assured the reader that his 1975 Cambridge dissertation included more information about this rare edition of Marx’s writings. Not only did he reply with the necessary bibliographic information, he also invited me to look over his personal copy of the dissertation.

Slowly puffing away at his pipe, Stuart was only too happy to answer my many questions in detail. He later offered to proofread my entire PhD. When I later thanked him for his profound kindness, he replied explaining:

When I completed my final draft of my doctorate in Cambridge in 1975, I asked Alan McBriar if would look at it. I’m not sure if his name means anything to you. He was an early professor at Monash and authored the standard study of the Fabians. Alan was also a member of the CP in the 1940s, and recruited Amirah Inglis [a prominent Jewish Communist and writer]. Alan went out of his way to read my dissertation and make suggestions, so I’m merely redeeming an obligation. No doubt you’ll do the same one day.

This anecdote captures the source of Stuart’s generosity and warmth — he understood that left-wing intellectuals are part of a movement that spans continents and generations. As a historian, writer, and political activist, he exemplified the spirit of solidarity at the heart of the workers’ movement.