Friday, May 12, 2006


I've been reading a biography of James McAuley, one of the leading figures on the Australian right after WWII.

The first half of the book deals with the 1940s, when McAuley was part of a group of young progressive intellectuals.

As I expected, the book provides further evidence that the political class had moved away from a traditional nationalism by the 1940s.

Part of the problem was the influence of Marxism: McAuley himself said of the Melbourne intelligentsia of the 1940s that they were good people to drink with, but frozen in the attitudes of the 1930s and "completely subjugated by a quite infantile Stalinism".

But the problem went deeper than a flirtation by intellectuals with the Communist Party. McAuley himself, who was quite independent in his views, was no more a traditional nationalist than the Marxists.

In 1947 he advocated adding Papua New Guinea to Australia. He wrote,

One is tempted to think the old French dream, never capable of fulfilment under the conditions of the French Empire, of a united polity and economy shared equally by French citizens of any colour or origin, is a conception most suitable for application to New Guinea. Consciously to develop the islands so as to add to the Commonwealth of Australia, one, two or three million citizens ... would be the most fruitful and gigantic defence work Australia could undertake.

McCauley did not believe his proposal would be implemented because it conflicted with the "narrow ethnocentrism" of Australian nationalism.

So, even someone like McCauley had already reached the view by 1947 that white ethnocentrism was a negative quality.

This was not the commonly held view at Federation in 1901. At Federation it was positively asserted that the states could form a successful nation because of the bond of common ethnicity - language, ancestry, history etc - shared between them.

So between the early to mid-1900s there occurred one of those shifts in thinking amongst the political class in Australia, in which the intellectual reflex was to consider white ethnocentrism as illegitimate or unprogressive, rather than as a foundation stone of national identity.


  1. How odd. I bought an issue of Quadrant last night - for the first time in my life - and read an interview with Peter Coleman(no relation) who goes into detail about one time editor, James McAuley. Is this the same bloke?

  2. Yes, that's him. He became a Catholic anti-communist activist in the 1950s. He was thought of, from this point on, as a leading figure on the right, but I'm not sure how much of an underlying liberalism he jettisoned.

  3. I would assume he still viewed ethnicity as a prison.

  4. Mark, Is it possible that the 1901 sentiment was a reaction to immigraton policies in the second half of the 19th century? My knowledge is limited, however, were there not large numbers of Pacific Islanders brought into Queensland as cheap labour to work on sugar plantations.

    Canadian immigration shifted as well to Asian, cheap labour to build the railroads, and eastern European/Jewish to populate the Prairies. The rise of the Orange lodge (circa 1870)and immigration restriction was a reaction to non-traditional immigration (and higher French birth rates)in the late 19th century. Despite their efforts immigration from the British Isles dropped off drastically after WWI. An Anglo Conformist policy was adopted in 1931, however was not as restrictive as the 1924 US legislation. The point being that the shift, IMO, came in the 19th century and was well established before the inter-war years.

    Desmond Jones

  5. Shane, I expect so, though I haven't read enough of his later writings to say definitively.

    Desmond, it's true that there were rural employers in nineteenth century Australia agitating for "coolie" labour and that this issue was decisively handled at the time of Federation, with legislation to repatriate the Pacific Islanders.

    However, most Australians would never have met such immigrants (the cane fields are a long way north), so I doubt that the level of ethnic feeling can be attributed to this.