Janet McCalman, Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965

Melbourne University Press, 1984, rrp. $19.50

[Review by] John Shields

This book is destined to be highly controversial. According to the publisher’s cover blurb, McCalman’s book is “the first to attempt a comprehensive social history of working-class life and politics in twentieth century Australia”. ‘Tbe author may have cut her quill, as it were, on nineteenth century British labour history, but her essay in the life and time of the modern, anti podean working class is nonetheless vibrant, stimulating and scholarly.

In crafting her account of “public” life in twentieth century suburban Richmond, McCalman draws mainly on orthodox literary sources and on the occasional interview (e.g. with Jim cairns).

The result is a checklist of infamy and class betrayal in inner city Labor and municipal politics. On the other hand, in unbolting the door to the “private” lives of the Richmond community, McCalman makes imaginative use of the recently recorded oral testimonies of some forty residents and ex-residents of Tiger territory, virtually all of whom were born into working class households around the turn of the century. The author traces the lives of her subjects through infancy and childhood in the years leading up to the Great War, through youth and early adulthood in the war years and the 1920s, through the first struggling years of married life in the grim days of the Great Depression, through parenthood and middle life in the late ‘305 and the Second World War, and on to the greying years of the 1950s and 60s, when the surviving Richmondites saw their decaying community rent by political and sectarian bitterness, swamped by immigrants from Southern Europe, and finally subverted by young urban professionals – the bourgeois “yuppies”. Although McCalman is careful to set each stage in the life cycle against the many opportunities and barriers thrown up by the “public” sphere – schooling, the sexual division of paid labour, the iron laws of the workplace, the state of the labour market, the capitalist economy in boom and bust, the law, the welfare apparatus and so on – she nevertheless places ultimate emphasis on the role of individual initiative and self-help in the determination of “life chances”. Seen in this light, what she gives us is social history as personal metaphor. The remembered lives of McCalman’s select group of interviewees become, in essence, the life experience of an entire working class community an experience spanning three successive generations.

At her best, McCalman offers several brilliant glimpses of corruption and intrigue in ALP machine and municipal politics between the wars. Could it be that the word “rort’ was coined in one of the smoke-filled back rooms of Richmon, Town Hall? Of course, Sydney-siders in particular should take care not to become overly sanctimonious about such revelations: McCalman’s earlier chapters on “private” life also make fascinating reading. This is especially the case with her treatment of childhood, youth and early womanhood, all of which have been seminal themes in British. and Australian oral and social history for more than a decade now. These high points, along with,McCalman’s generally splendid style of presentation, make Struggletown well worth a read.

However, the later chapters are generally shallow and seem more than a little rushed. The coverage given to the revolutionary changes wrought by the war economy between 1940 and 1945 is decidedly disappointing. Moreover, the book hardly does justice to the position of the Richmond Left either during the elemental struggles of the 1930s or throughout the bitter warfare between Left and Right in the 1950s and 1960s.

Quibbles aside, there are at least two aspects of the book which are certain to irritate many with an interest in the history of class and gender relations in urban Australia. Firstly, as G.M. Trevelyan mayor may not have put it, this is working class social history with ballot box politics left in, but with trade unionism and workplace politics virtually excluded from the record. There are neither union officials nor rank and file union members amongst McCalman’s interview “sample”, and yet the working men and women of Richmond clearly made a powerful contribution to the development of mass unionism in the clothing, textile, boot, leather and food preserving industries during the early decades of this century. And why write the Municipal Employees Union off in a single sentence as a simple instrument of aldermanic corruption? The nature of local union organisation, whether for better or worse, can not be taken as given. Here we need less in the way of a historical assertion and more in the way of a good warts and all historical analysis.

This points towards a second basic criticism. McCalman uses the value-laden and nebulous notion of “respectability” as her main theoretical bridge between “public” and “private” life. Often the author seems to confuse “respectability” as an all-consuming social imperative and moral absolute; as a cause and consequence of mate’rial success and moral rectitude; as an agent of social delineation more powerful than class and gender factors put together. Moreover, the pursuit of “respectability” per se emerges as the fundamental agent of stratification and division amongst the common people themselves. Material differences notwithstanding, McCalman’s respectables – the skilled worker and the sober, pious petty bourgeois – apparently share a powerful status consciousness set poles apart from the “rough” collectivism of The Great Unwashed. There is no room for analytical subtlety or interactionist explanation here. In the end, “respectability” and “middle class” conformity (for they always go together!:> alwaY8 triumph over the tyrannies of material circumstance and the latent threat of worker radicalisation.

Sadly, the author seems totally unmindful of the subleties of the recent intensive debates over the causes of working class internal division and the ambiguous position of “aristocracies of labour” in industrial capitalist The book, in short, suffers from a surfeit of respectability. When all is said and done, the reader is left wondering whether “respectability” is essentially a prerequisite for, or a corequisite or consequence of “upward social mobility”. Those condemned by state of mind to remain in the social pits, the ‘rough’ in the author’s parlance, remain by definition incapable of fathoming this riddle of riddles. But could it be that at least some of the common people of Richmond simply refused, for dark and dangerous motives, to take the magic carpet ride to “respectability” and passive, apolitical domesticity? If they did, then in Struggletown their voices remain totally silent.

Whether or not you regard Struggletown as an adequate or judicious representation of the twentieth century Australian working class experience will, of course, depend largely on your own origins and aspirations (and naturally on whether you happen to see yourself as respectable or rough!!) Like it or not, however, Struggletown is sure to generate a tumult in the ranks of oral, social, labour, and political historians. It may also produce the odd heated exchange amongst the many students of Australian class and gender relations. And for that alone we owe the author a sizeable debt of gratitude. As Sydney-siders we can only hope that McCalman’s example inspires other oral historians to tackle the histories of the working class communities of twentieth century Sydney – the shared experiences of the common people of South Sydney, Newtown, Marrickville, Leichchardt, Balmain and Bankstown. The challenge awaits us all.