Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

John Hirst: culture warrior shaped future through the past

Jeremy Sammut

09 February 2016 | The Australian

john hirstThe historian John Hirst was a giant of Australian intellectual life. Hirst, who died aged 73 in Melbourne last Friday had a long and distinguished academic career, including writing three books — among many others — that will forever shape our understanding of Australian history from foundation to federation.

When scholars and students want to learn about the nature of convict society, or to study how prisons were transformed into colonial democracies, or when they seek the explanation for why the colonies created a nation, they will consult Hirst’s Convict Society and Its Enemies, The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy, and The Sentimental Nation.

Yet this influential body of work on Australia’s political and social history was but a segment of John’s contribution to his field. He was interested in everything, and has thankfully left us with a plethora of beautifully-written books, essays and articles on many subjects that captured his attention.

The extraordinary breadth of this work includes the books Australian History in 7 Questions and The Shortest History of Europe. The latter volume has been translated into nine languages, selling more than 100,000 copies in China alone. But it is the title of the edited collection of his various writings, Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, that gives the sense of his work’s originality and significance. John’s dissent from what he called the left-progressive consensus within academia concerning the nation’s past, present and future inevitably led to him to be labelled as a contrarian.

This does not do justice to his achievements. What John produced, time and again, were impeccably scholarly, and enormously entertaining, ripostes against orthodoxies he believed to be in error. To read Hirst is not to encounter a curmudgeon, but to be delighted as he marshals facts, logic, and evidence with unarguable skill and precision to establish the heterodox case, whilst conveying powerful insights into whatever historical experience or process is discussed.

The conclusions drawn, and the wisdom thereby imparted, were boldly stated no matter the political and cultural dynamite he was handling, be it disputing the radical feminist account of the role of gender in Australian history, or contradicting the capital-M Multiculturalist view of Australia as a perpetually racist country. It was his commitment to the rigorous pursuit of historical truth that drove him to explore the deeper patterns and meanings of the past, and the contemporary implications, which others had either missed or misled us about.

John had no peer as a culture warrior, and these features of his work were a manifestation of his fierce independence combined with a brilliant mind. But he defied simplistic categorisation as a partisan, because his politics were idiosyncratic.

A life-long Labor voter, he admitted to becoming more conservative over time and ended up voting for John Howard, but without abandoning his commitment to egalitarianism.  He remained stoically Old Labor on economic policy and matters of class, while his second and third thoughts about the consequences of the social revolution of the 1960s shaped the social conservatism that distanced him from the modern Labor Party. He was a self-described Social Democrat, and hence also a Traditionalist in that dual sense.

Among John’s greatest strengths was the way he wrote, which cannot be separated from the purpose of what he wrote. Unlike many academics, he did not aim to impress his university colleagues, but wrote for the benefit of the national culture. That his mission was to influence how Australians understood the qualities and characteristics of their own society accounts for his unparalleled ability to write for a general audience.

For all his readability, John was an elegant and outstanding stylist, as adept at clarifying complex issues by reducing them to their essentials, as he was at crafting the pithy line that eliminated all doubt his interpretation was true and correct. It was his style, allied to his civic-mindedness, that set him apart, and made him among the last of a virtually extinct breed within the universities — the public intellectual.

He applied the same public-spirited attitude to a variety of official roles, which included as Convenor of the Australian Republican Movement in Victoria and the chair of the Commonwealth Civics Education Group. Herein also lay the motivation for his many years of active public engagement as a social commentator, through the writing of newspaper opinion pieces (often for The Australian but also for the Fairfax papers), and through the articles that regularly appeared in Quadrant, particularly when the magazine was under the editorship of his friend and La Trobe University colleague Robert Manne.

The scope of his commentary — on topics as different as why the unemployed should work for the dole, to why Australian foreign policy should take a realistic attitude towards Indonesia, and why strong border protection policies built popular support for a large, legal, non-discriminatory immigration program, to family law reform — burnished his reputation as an intellectual gadfly renowned for shaking up dull conventionalities.

More telling was his influence. His Quadrant article on The Five Fallacies of Aboriginal Policy published in 1994 established the parameters of the reconsideration of indigenous policy that has occurred in the last decade or so; an intellectual legacy acknowledged by Noel Pearson.

For all the controversy he courted by challenging the politically correct pieties of the age, John maintained an amazingly diverse and large circle of friends and admirers encompassing journalists, editors, authors, academics, think tankers, and politicians from across the ideological spectrum. Hence, the uneasy juxtaposition of the email addresses of some sworn enemies in the message he sent announcing his retirement in 2006. He literally knew everyone, and was on the same good terms with people whose natural home was the left-leaning Black Inc. publishers as he was with those in the conservative Connor Court stable.

This was not only due to John’s innate decency. The mentoring role he assumed for so many people was a natural extension of his wonderful record as a thesis supervisor, which launched the successful careers of many academic historians. Unfailingly willing to lend his time, support and expertise to those who sought it or whom he sought out to help, he could more accurately be described as a generous sponsor of the careers of young people he believed in, myself included. I am enormously privileged to be one of those who owes him a huge debt for his wise counsel and profound impact on my professional life over the 20 years of our friendship.

John Hirst was a great man and a master historian, who exerted a wide influence over many aspects of our public life.

Dr Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. 

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