Labour History

Marxism for Beginner Nations: Radical Nationalist Historians and the Great War

Labour History (2012), 103, (1), 123–144.


In 1965 Ken Inglis published a provocative article in Meanjin, in which he challenged historians to give greater consideration to World War I and, in particular, the work of its official historian, Charles Bean. Inglis suggested that his Marxist colleagues were uncomfortable with Great War history because the imperial loyalty of the diggers was contrary to their assumptions about the radicalism of the working class. There was, however, one element of Great War history from which radical historians drew ideological comfort: Inglis believed that historians of the Left had portrayed the conscription debate inaccurately as a battle between an anti-war and anti-British proletariat and a militarist bourgeoisie. This article tests the veracity of Inglis’ claims by examining the work of four historians commonly associated with the radical nationalist movement: Brian Fitzpatrick, Russel Ward, Ian Turner and Geoffrey Serle. It considers how the Great Depression, the rise of the popular front against fascism and (in the case of the last three) service in World War II shaped these men’s approaches to memorialising war and writing history. The paper shows how the radical historians came increasingly to view World War I as the wrecking ball of their socialist dream.

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Author details

Holbrook, Carolyn