The power of the past for the present

November 17, 1993

The History Wars
By Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark
Melbourne University Publishing 2003
288 pages, $29.95


History, and the lessons that we derive from it, is a weapon in social struggle; all sides wield it as a weapon. Progressives call on history to justify social change, conservatives to defend the status quo or even reverse previous reforms.

The struggle over Australian history hinges on the treatment of Aborigines. The Australian nation-state was built upon the colonial dispossession of the Aborigines. Because Aboriginal oppression has not been resolved, those who still benefit from it continue to historically justify it.

In The History Wars, progressive historians Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark provide a history of the struggle over Australia's past, from its origins to the recent debates over frontier conflict, Manning Clark and the National Museum of Australia. Much of the debate centres on race.

The History Wars, written in very accessible language, is essential to understanding how conservatives have employed history in the debate over Aboriginal rights.

The "History Warriors" (Macintyre's term for the conservatives) were for many years a small circle of people grouped around the journal Quadrant and the Institute of Public Affairs' IPA Review. Quadrant was produced by the Association for Cultural Freedom, a Cold War institution established as a base for the anti-communist intelligentsia, funded by the CIA. The IPA was set up by the corporate sector.

While the History Warriors are mainly professional historians, they also include right-wing columnists such as Miranda Devine and Paddy McGuiness, as well as an assortment of bureaucrats, business executives and politicians who use the academics' findings to fuel their arguments.

With the election of the federal Coalition government in 1996, the History Warriors gained greater prominence as Prime Minister John Howard publicly championed their views.

In July that year, Howard declared: "One of the more insidious developments in Australian political life over the past decade or so has been the attempt to rewrite Australian history in the service of a partisan political cause."

In defence of their partisan cause, conservatives claim to represent facts as they speak for themselves, as if historians are merely passive transmitters of information who do not carry out any selecting and interpreting evidence.

Those who expose the racism in Australian history are accused of distorting historical truth and engineering thought control to serve an elite ideological cause. This is given the epithet of "political correctness".

Conservatives generally apply this label to the anti-racist and anti-sexist ideas that were raised by the social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, and which have since — in watered-down form — become an accepted part of the dominant liberal-democratic discourse of Australian capitalist politics.

In order to win broader public support for their reactionary goal of rolling back the limited ruling-class concessions to these progressive ideas, the conservatives try to present themselves as populists combating an elite-imposed political orthodoxy.

In his drive to roll back previous Liberal and Labor governments concessions to the Aboriginal rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s, Howard sought to re-establish the conservatives' views as dominant in capitalist political discourse through appointing more of his friends and political sympathisers to governing bodies of national media agencies, such as the ABC.

Macintyre provides a chapter on how basic understandings of frontier conflict, recognised under the Keating Labor government, have since been denied by the History Warriors.

Propped up by right-wing commentator and anthropologist Ron Brunton, the Howard government was claiming by 2000 that there was never a Stolen Generation.

History Warrior Keith Windschuttle levels the most serious charge in the history wars — that the "politically correct" are guilty of fabricating historical events.

Windschuttle claims in his articles in Quadrant and his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002) that the number of Aborigines killed by white settlers was so insignificant that these killings could not be described as massacres. He interprets evidence narrowly and literally to sharply revise down the number of Aboriginal deaths. He concludes with the accusation that progressive historians have invented massacres.

While the History Warriors initially targeted academics, the firing line has shifted in recent years to the domain of public history, most sensationally in the battle against the National Museum of Australia.

The museum has been repeatedly criticised since it opened in 2001. Right-wing columnists and a member of the museum's council and friend of John Howard, David Barnett, have argued that the museum ridicules white culture, and under-represents and diminishes the importance of politicians and business people.

Keith Windschuttle has attacked the museum's representation of frontier conflict.

A chapter by Anna Clark illustrates another key battlefield: public schools. Particularly contentious has been how the arrival of Europeans should be described. The term "invasion" was removed from many syllabi in the mid 1990s soon after being introduced, while terms such as "gender", "class" and "ideology" have also been targeted.

If the struggle over the past is about politics in the present, then the stakes are further raised when it is also about shaping the ideas of the future generation.

"It is hardly surprising that Australian history should have been so political since it deals with events whose consequences are still with us", Macintyre observes. Despite their protestations to the contrary, the conservative historians are engaged in a partisan political cause, moreover one that defends the actions and interests of a truly elite group — the capitalists and their politicians.

The first casualty of war is truth, and Macintyre points out that the history wars are no exception. This, however, is the weakness of The History Wars. It is too defensive. Macintyre and Clark do not openly take up the gauntlet, accepting that it is, and always has been, a war. They appeal too much to the respectability of historiographical standards. They gasp with too much surprise at the methods employed by the conservatives, who have always understood the nature of the struggle they are waging.

Perhaps this is because Macintyre hankers sentimentally for the Keating era. While comparatively more progressive in his view of Australian history, Paul Keating was not on the side of Aborigines. He was for partial and symbolic measures when it came to race relations. He wanted a new, less overtly racist national unity, by consensus rather than compulsion, but one that did not end the oppression of Aborigines.

It is clear that the History Warriors have raised the stakes in our understanding of Australia's past. Australia's official national story, as promoted by Howard, Blainey, Windschuttle, et. al,, rests on the lynchpin of racism and national unity behind a new imperial project of unjust wars abroad, locking out asylum seekers on Australia's borders, and assaults on the democratic rights and living standards of working people at home.

But this national story has been tottering for some time. By consciously and consistently taking up our side of the history wars we can throw out the storytellers, along with their fairy-tale.

This war is about politics, as much as history. The history wars pose an important challenge for activists to really understand Australian history and its complex, living interconnections with present struggles.

By doing so, we can use the weapon of history more potently to make history today.

From Green Left Weekly, August 11, 2004.
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