Bob James, Anarchism and State Violence in Sydney and Melbourne 1886-1896: An Argument about Australian Labor History

10 Church Street, Newcastle East [NSW: B. James] 1986.

Verity Burgmann

It is difficult to work out whom Bob James despises most: the contemporaries who persecuted the anarchists or those who have completed the process of vilification and denigration via the historical record. James’ book is not just an argument about what happened in the past but, as the sub-title suggests, a statement about the role of historians in portraying the past.

The relations between Australian anarchists and the’ state authorities are placed within the context of world-wide hysteria about alleged anarchist atrocities. James rightly allocates the blame for violence where it belongs, pointing out that in numbers of attacks, in numbers of victims, in applications of indiscriminate force, the label of ‘mindless terrorist’ attached more reasonably to the forces of the state than to the anarchists. He carefully details the record of state violence against Australia’s early anarchists, and outlines also the ideological warfare that accompanied the repression. Truth, for example, pontificated on May Day 1892: ‘All ignorant and vicious people are Anarchists … [most] prisoners in gaol are Anarchists and most Anarchists who are not in gaol ought to be.’ (p.159) Anarchists, James explains, were easily scapegoated precisely because they posed no real threat but, because their ideas challenged the hierarchical and authoritarian forms in which society was organised, their ideas had to be made to appear unworthy of discussion.

Historians, according to James, have completed the hatchet job done on anarchists because historians are dependent upon the kind of hierarchical institutions that anarchists oppose with their ideas about individual freedom and self-determination. ‘An acknowledgment of the power ‘ordinary’ people have to run their own lives, or to influence ‘important’ matters threatens the hierarchical institutions, State, trade union or professional, which are professional historians’ power bases, and they would undermine their own integrity by questioning their allegiance to such power bases.’ Labour historians are just as complicit. ‘Proletarian history has not altered and can not alter this situation as it does now empower. It cannot even inspire large-scale self-awareness and least of all a democratic culture since it urges discipline and submergence of the individual to the mass, led by others in pursuit of material goods.’(p.16)

James aims to counter the wilful neglect and misrepresentations of historians. Just as Tom Stoppard rescued Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from obscurity, so James has taken’ the characters who play walk-on-walk-off roles in most labour histories – J.A. Andres, David and Will Andrade, Chummy Fleming, Bob Winspear, Arthur Desmond, E.J. Brady, Larrie Petrie, and many others and placed them in the centre of the stage. For this we should be grateful to him, but perhaps James also fails to do justice to these anarchists. For all his fulminations against historians, he has faithfully employed the traditional chronological narrative approach, which makes difficult any serious examination of the ideas of those he hopes to rescue from the recesses of history. J.A. Andrews, for instance, was one of the most interesting and original political thinkers Australia has ever produced; his articles on the nature of law in capitalist society are especially intriguing. Yet James devotes insufficient attention to the philosophies of the anarchists and to the serious intellectual bases to the disputes between them. Consequently they appear to be quarrelsome by nature rather than for very good reasons. The blow-by-blow account of the activities and infighting absorbs most of the drama, leaving ideas and theory relatively unexplored and underdeveloped.

James is so hostile to marxist scholarship that he cannot properly locate its weaknesses in comparison with anarchist ideology. It was not just that anarchists were more reliably anti-authoritarian in their notions of the desirable future society and the best means to achieve it. Anarchists, unlike most Marxists, recognised that the state was not just an agent of class rule but a problem in itself, an institution that had a repressive dynamic of its own. James also tends to conceal the breadth and depth of anarchist theory. Anarchism was not, as James would have, ‘logically and naturally peaceful not violent’ (p. 240). This was true only of some brands of anarchism. Many anarchists believed the state would not crumble before the force of ‘moral suasion’. James prefers the peaceful type of anarchism himself, so much of the cutting edge of the anarchist philosophies of the time, which ranged themselves lucidly against the dominance of state socialism in the labour movement, are unfortunately lost. He misses, for example, Andrews superb deathbed entreaty to the movement to forsake its parliamentary ways:

The wishes of sheep count for nothing at all against the eating of mutton, even if the sheep are in – big majority. The votes of human sheep are not worth any more. The will of the people is supreme, but will has a clenched fist in it. Let us get reform peaceably if possible, but always remembering that ‘a dozen bleeding noses at the right time may save a thousand bleeding bodies later on.’ (Tocsin 18 December 1902)

These criticisms aside, the book is a serious and Worthwhile statement about an interesting and important group of people, and a rattling good yarn as well. And historians would do well to ponder his critique of the profession.