Manning Clark, challenger of conservative verities

Wednesday, June 12, 1991

By Alastair Davidson

Manning Clark will be remembered by me in a series of vignettes of kaleidoscopic variety. Together they form a composite picture which explains why he attained the status of Australia's first great historian as much as do the erudition and insights in his voluminous published work.

I first saw Manning Clark when I was among the earliest to benefit from the expansion of Australian tertiary education in the '50s. With his bosom mate, Don Baker, he was attempting — in a tiny Austin Seven — to do Grand Prix-type circuits in front of the Childers Street Hall of the ANU. We suspected that it had to do with the proximity of a certain hostelry to which he would take us on occasion in the future.

In those days he was so unassuming in his dress that an apocryphal story (students are gluttons for such tales) had a new boy from the bush mistaking him for the gardener and telling him to lead him to Professor Clark's study.

He evoked a mixture of awe and astonishment. Later, he took us to the coast, regaling us with stories about every nook and cranny, all of whose histories he knew, and baffled us with questions whether we would recognise Christ if we saw him hitchhiking up the Clyde.

Yet later he taught me how to find the cunje for bait and pointed out how beautiful the bush was. To a £10 fare immigrant, he was Australia, a man who loved his country, was not ashamed to show it and wanted Australians to aspire to greatness.

It is now folklore that he came from a family which descended from Marsden, was the son of a clergyman and that his work is of a strongly religious flavour — all of which seem to be far from the concerns of the Australian left. There is another side which needs recall.

In the days when communism was anathematised in Australia, when Menzies wanted all Marxists outlawed, when the Petrov Commission was only just concluded, Manning Clark would propose on each anniversary of the Russian Revolution that we toast that event. He wrote Meeting Soviet Man, in which he revealed a sympathy for the attempt to construct socialism, which was so rare then that his views were notorious.

His very Australian generosity was accompanied by an openness which made it possible for his students to study the USSR and communism and to espouse socialism. He became renowned for his refusal in a then mean-minded world to discriminate against leftists — or, for that matter, any creed — finding them jobs and building a History Department where many flowers could bloom.

Through his own courage in writing the sort of history he did, in defiance of the ruling canons of scholarship — a mean empirical history imported directly from Britain — he encouraged whole generations of students to study forbidden areas.

Socialists of this generation sometimes find the theme of his History of Australia, with its emphasis on the tragedy of flawed truggle of Europeans to come to terms with an alien environment, difficult to accept. Many fix on his cult of mateship and the bushman — the world we have lost — as what socialists should remember him for.

But his intellectual significance for the Australian left lies elsewhere. He was the first historian — and then the only historian for many years — to challenge the crudely empirical history which has dominated our self-understanding. In shaking up the old verities, he made a breach in the wall of the hegemonic ideas of a conservative society. Through this breach would rush an ever increasing torrent of critical thought, without which there could be no battle of ideas and no hope of a socialist consciousness.

His cult of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche against Burke and Mill was a generation ahead of his time. it allowed him to see the self-congratulatory world — even of Australian radicals — as dominated by people who had the souls of cash registers. Marx made similar observations in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, pointing out that this crude materialism was the effect of capitalist relations of production.

Manning Clark also — in utopian mode — made us all see that Australia had traditions which had been suppressed but which point the way to a more human world in which Australians could live in harmony with each other and with their environment.

Issue