Representative Lives? Biography and Labour History

By Hearn, Mark; Knowles, Harry | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Representative Lives? Biography and Labour History


Hearn, Mark, Knowles, Harry, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


We cannot afford wantonly to lose sight of great men and memorable lives, and are bound to store up objects of admiration as far as may be.

Lord Acton (1)

There has been perhaps no more repudiated notion in historical practice than the idea of exulting the role of the great man in history. An assertion of the conceit of personal greatness, the exaggeration of the role of the individual in the historical process, and perhaps most of all the fact that this greatness was attributed to males, have all been rejected by self-respecting historians. Suspicion--or fear--of the 'delusional emphasis on "great men" and their deeds', as the American social historian and biographer Nick Salvatore has observed, or at least the unreasonable exaggeration of the role of the individual, has also encouraged suspicion of biography itself. (2) Geoffrey Elton informed historians that they 'should not suppose' that as writers of biography they were writing history. Timothy Blanning and David Carradine were clear that biographers do not produce anything which could be considered 'serious history'. Others have been equally dismissive of biography as a 'suspect enterprise' or as something which is 'outside' history. (3) Lois Banner surmises that these critics may see biography as inherently limited because it revolves around only one life, and is derived from a belles-lettres tradition often written by non-academic historians who lack the rigour of university scholars. (4)

Bidding farewell to the inappropriate or simply inaccurate celebration of greatness, we are left with at least a couple of nagging doubts: why do so many biographies, of both men and increasingly women, continue to be published, and a number of them written by perfectly respectable historians? Even more problematically, how should historians account for the role of the individual, without at least in part acknowledging that individual actors may play a significant role in the context of their historical moment?

These problems are particularly relevant to Australian labour history, which has maintained a consistent fascination with the role played by a range of individual leaders and activists. The founders of Labour History were mindful of this tradition. Robin Gollan set the parameters of the specialism in an editorial in the first issue of the journal in 1962. Gollan thought labour history should encompass

   a study of the working class situation taken in terms of health,
   leisure ... social history in the fullest sense, including politics
   ... class relations, the impact of other classes and class
   organisations on the workers ... economic history of labour .
   individual histories of major unions, the history of ideas and
   opinion and the history of popular culture. (5)

Gollan was careful to point out that the traditional form of labour history, 'confined largely to biography and political history [left] plenty of room for different interpretations'. From the outset the founders saw a place for labour biography in the study of labour history, a view that mirrored the well-established biographical tradition within Australian labour historiography.

Early work in Australian labour biography had been as much autobiographical as biographical. These books focused on the individual and the existence of any broader insights into the historical context of time and place was more by accident that design. New South Wales Labor Premier Jack Lang published his Why I Fight in 1934. In 1939 E.H. Lane, the left-leaning labour journalist, former AWU official and the brother of William Lane, published his memoirs in Dawn to Dusk: Reminiscences of a Rebel. Around the same time, Lloyd Ross self-published William Lane and the Australian Labor Movement (1935). H.V. Evatt's biography of former NSW Premier William Holman emerged in 1940; by the early 1960s, biographies of the former Labor prime ministers W.M. Hughes (1964) and Ben Chifley (1961), as well as trade union leader Harry Holland (1964), were on the shelves. …

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