An insightful guide to Australian labour history

June 21, 2022
The Barber Who Read History
Background image: Wikimedia Commons

The Barber Who Read History: Essays in radical history
By Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving
Bull Ant Press 2021. $30.00
Available at

When a young socialist activist asked me for some suggested reading on Australian labour history it started me wondering what would be a good starting point. I ended up suggesting Humphrey McQueen’s A New Brittania (1970) because it was a critique of previous writing on Australian labour history from a perspective that recognised the impact of imperialism and racism on the development of the Australian labour movement.

But what next to suggest?

Then I read the The Barber Who Read History, a collection of essays by radical historians Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving, and discovered it contained a good summary of some of the main writings on the subject and some incisive discussion of how and why history is written.

Cahill and Irving have collaborated for a long time and in 2010 co-authored Radical Sydney: Places Portraits and Unruly Episodes. I got a warm appreciation for their passion for labour history when I attended a “Radical Sydney Walking Tour” led by these two and organised by Green Left in 2019.

These are two historians who have demonstrated in their life-long work their commitment not only to describe history truthfully but also with the purpose of changing society to end oppression and exploitation and to empower the oppressed.

In the late 1960s they were part of a collective that ran the “Free University” in Sydney, one of the radical experiments of the time. But unlike many radicals of those heady times, Cahill and Irving have remained radicals.

The writing of history is never neutral and The Barber Who Read History includes an account of the covert intervention by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History in the 1960s.

“The mission of radical historians,” writes Cahill, “is to confront and contest the consensus view of the Australian past and its ideological underpinnings. And part of the way it attempts to do this is by returning to historical discussion and analysis, ideas, events, people, themes, that have been variously sidelined, ignored, ‘forgotten’ by the consensus process.”

Australia is a deeply class-divided society despite its loud claims to be egalitarian. One of the things that the capitalist class seeks to do is to whitewash out the violent struggle that shaped its history, in particular the violence against the First Nations peoples it dispossessed, but also against the convict and wage labour used to accumulate the capital upon which its power is based.

From the other side of the class divide, “scholars of working-class history are looking for new organising ideas” writes Irving. New organising ideas are urgently needed in the “very different moment” in the labour movement’s development that we live in today.

“Unions are much smaller and coralled by the state, social-democratic corporatism has succumbed to neo-liberalism, revolutionary parties are as sectarian as ever, organised labour militancy is rare, and parliamentary democracy has been ‘hollowed out’. Consequently, it is not surprising that the study of class is different, responding to different forms of struggle and a different kind of working class,” he argues.

Cahill and Irving also stress that labour historians should be engaged in struggle and not to just be observers from the sidelines.

The Barber Who Read History challenged me to adjust my perspectives on Australian labour history (studied informally in the course of practical activism). In particular it made me soften my take on some left historians who have been accused of “romanticising” Australian labour history.

The book persuaded me that if we want to write history as a political act and to make its readers become political actors and history makers then we have to be able to tell a good story that can both inform and inspire.

Back to the practical task this review began with, I’ve decided to suggest to socialist activists approaching Australian labour history to use The Barber Who Read History as a reading guide.

But who is the barber mentioned in the title? Sorry, no spoiler from this review on this question.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.