The Barber Who Read History: Essays in Radical History

(Terry Irving & Rowan Cahill, 2021)
Neale Towart 

Trades Hall for a long time had a barber shop. In recent times there were plans for a nail bar/beauty salon. This seems to have faded, however. The Hairdressers and Wigmakers Employees Assn was a tenant in the early 20th century.

The role of barber shops in reading or talking history is important in the Trades Hall context. Many workers couldn’t read to had limited access to reading material. They had no time, no spare cash. Trades Hall provided a library and reading room and barber shop. Lucy Taksa in her look at the history of reading mentions the role of barbers1.

The library itself was established as part of the hall. It was officially the trades hall and literary institute to enable the workers to read history. The reading room had newspapers from across Australia and the world. It was often so busy that the newspapers were time rationed to give everyone a chance.

In this context, Cahill and Irving’s book sets out the way they think and write (and talk) about radical history, the practices of teaching and the essential political role of radical historians. They set out why labour history needs to be more than what that title might imply in Australia. The lens must be wider than unions and ALP politics. It has always been much broader than that. Terry Irving’s deep analysis of the urge to liberty in white Australian history exemplifies this2

The book has the authors putting their hearts AND minds on their sleeves outlining how they came to be the thinkers and writers that they are. Never Neutral and that is a necessity. The book makes me think, as perhaps this “review” indicates with the connections and continuities that sprang to mind as I read.  

The problem for Rowan’s barber, as explained in the chapter detailing the trauma of the haircut, is that he didn’t have clear access or the inclination to delve into the resources that might have helped him past the conspiracy theories. Rather he has succumbed, as is so easy to do, to half heard snippets and easy viewing and listening “propaganda” that the internet, our blessing and curse, encourages and allows. 

In contrast, Irving and Cahill have opinions, informed by deep knowledge and practice, not by social media and half heard or partially understood films/videos. They interrogate via deep and close reading, and via discussion and argument. They are generous to many historians, including those who have criticised them. I think in particular of McQueen’s critique of Class Structure in Australian History.3

Aligned with the history from below approach to history and acknowledging the way this collection urges us to broaden our reading and thoughts. The barber shop title and image immediately reminded of reading of other barbers, in Barcelona in the days of 1936-39. The co-operatives established there included the barbers. E P Thompson looms large in any such history from below and the discussion of his development, and of those around him and his students is well worth the price of a ticket.

The best thing about a fine collection of thoughts and ideas that people can discuss and argue with, is the honesty of their process and position. Not having known the authors until crossing paths with Rowan in the late lamented Workers Online, but having been aware of Terry’s historical work from the time I was at Sydney Uni in the early 1980s, I already had developed a “fellow feeling” for their approach which has been confirmed in reading these pieces. The authors have their hearts and brains on their sleeves in this collection with intellectual influences acknowledged and interrogated. 

I would add further to their lists of neglected historians, with Grace Karskens up there. Her research and interpretations in The Colony and People of the River4 extends, as Cahill and Irving seek, the definition of radical history, serious reading with a deep insightful look into Indigenous peoples and colonists, providing a glimpse of how they worked together and separately, in conflict and in cooperation, enabling us to imagine what might have been.

The connections in my head are to the works outside labour history but truly radical, such as that of David Graeber and David Wengrow in The Dawn of Everything5, who seek nothing less than a complete rethink of humanity’s past, because as Joe Strummer has said, the future is unwritten. Another that links to Linebaugh6 and Rediker is Sylvia Frederici7.

For labour historians this book is a challenge and a call to action. Rethink what labour history is and its role in a university, and the connection to outside organisations, be they trade unions, social movements or the like. The chapter on the role of violence in radical struggle pens another way of looking at how rights are struggled for and won. This a neglected area, with Michael Quinlan deep dive into early colonial worker/convict oppositions followed up by many records of 20th century violent clashes.

But enough from me. The collection urges you to read, think, identify the enemy and be willing to say their names. Academia discourages the forcefulness required to challenge to dominance of neoliberal capitalism as it has become normalised since the 1970s. Adult education classes helped Thompson refine his thinking. Universities have retreated with small holdouts remaining. Political economy, a key part of which is, or should be, radical history, remains strong at the University of Sydney for example. But is there room for others? 

To illustrate, precarity has been popularised as a term by Guy Standing, but this ignores the history of casual and short-term employment. A concept as old as employment itself. Workers organised to combat the danger of lack of income, and the danger of work itself through mutual associations, craft societies and trade unions. The classic example of trade unions organising against precarity so called would be the waterside workers and the hiring hall. Demanding and taking control of who gets work, when and how, rather than employers and the humiliation of the hungry mile. The common right to the means of survival has been written about in particular by Linebaugh.8 We tend to see work and class conflict as defined by the needs and powers of industrial capitalism. 

Radical history should mean more than a narrow version of labour history, but the currents that drove labouring men and women – to organise for the common good pervade throughout, with unionism the most visible manifestation of the demand for common rights, and the ability of workers to organise their work to control their work and their time. As Irving says, Van Der Linden and others see the need to rethink what “work” is in radical/labour history analysis to enable new ways of seeing the past, and new ways of seeking a better future for work and workers.

Tom Mann asked (as quoted by Thompson) “Now young man, what are you going to live for?”9. Radical history, as practiced here aims to help the worker think that through.

What could be more of a challenge to capitalism than people saying “You don’t own me.  You get my labour power for a certain time but that is it”. Capital continues to resist worker demands for fewer working hours, and the rise of Bullshit Jobs shows the deep commitment to control. The successes of workers in breaking those chains needs to be extended and deepened. The historical understanding these authors bring to their public work helps show the way. Read these articles and get involved.


  1. Taksa, L., and Lyons, M. (1992). Australian readers remember: an oral history of reading, 1890-1930. Oxford University Press.
  2. Irving, T. (2006). The southern tree of liberty: The democratic movement in New South Wales before 1856. Federation Press.
  3. Connell, R.W., and Irving, T.H. (1980). Class Structure in Australian History: Documents. Narrative and Argument, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne; and Connell, R., and Irving, T. H. (1992). Class structure in Australian history: Poverty and progress. Longman Cheshire. The critique can be found in. McQueen, H. (1984) Gallipoli to Petrov Allen & Unwin,  pp127-132).
  4. Karskens, G. (2010) The Colony: a history of early Sydney, Allen and Unwin, Sydney; and Karskens, G. (2020) People of the river: lost worlds of early Australia, Allen & Unwin.
  5. Graeber, D., and Wengrow, D. (2021). The dawn of everything: A new history of humanity. Penguin UK.
  6. See, for example, Linebaugh, P. (2010). Enclosures from the bottom up. Radical History Review2010(108), 11-27; or Linebaugh, P. (2021). Red round globe hot burning: a tale at the crossroads of commons and closure, of love and terror, of race and class, and of Kate and Ned Despard. Univ of California Press.
  7. See, for example, Federici, S. (2022). Foreword: The Significance of “Racial Capitalism”. Journal of Law and Political Economy2(2).
  8. Linebaugh, P. (2014). Stop, thief!: The commons, enclosures, and resistance. pm Press.
  9. Thompson, E. P. P. (2014). EP Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays and Polemics. NYU Press. p113