Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History

Questioning the Legacy ofClass Structure in Australian History: An Australian “Historical” Class Analysis?

Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History (2016), 111, (1), 99–120.


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Connell and Irving’s Class Structure in Australian History remains the authoritative text on class formation in Australia. Following the “death of class” of the late 1990s, class analysis has abandoned a historical orientation; replacing previous modes of class analysis with the theories of Pierre Bourdieu. This article attempts to re-historicise the study of class in Australia through a critique of Connell and Irving’s classic work. Connell and Irving claimed to have developed a genuinely “historical” reading of class in Australia, which purportedly relates categories such as the “working class” and “ruling class” to rich documents. Their work has been remembered as if it was a foundational analysis on which subsequent decades of research could rest. This article contends that, despite the rhetoric of its introduction, Class Structure in Australian History in fact reproduces a priori Marxist narratives without evidencing them. This article uses the narrative arc of the proletariat as its case study, through which it dismantles the authors’ claims to have generated their concepts out of historical documentation. This article concludes that the task of “historical” class analysis is still necessary, but that it is only possible through greater clarity over the a priori assumptions that are brought to it.

Footnotes

*Most of the research underpinning this publication was undertaken while completing a PhD at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Victoria. I would like to thank my supervisors, Professor Peter Beilharz and Dr Trevor Hogan for their direction and advice while pursuing this research. I would also like to thankLabour History‘s two anonymous referees. Google Scholar

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2.Jan Pakulski andMalcolm Waters, The Death of Class(:Sage, 1996). Google Scholar

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7.Examples includeLynette Finch, The Classing Gaze: Sexuality, Class and Surveillance(:Allen and Unwin, 1993), 11; andFrank Bongiorno, The People’s Party: Victorian Labor and the Radical Tradition 1875–1914(:Melbourne University Press, 1996), 4. Google Scholar

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26.Connell and Irving argue inClass Structure in Australian History(1992), 9, that “it would make no sense to speak of [a colonial ‘working class’] … in the 1830s,” however there is the clear anticipation of social divisions along the axis of merchants and urban wage workers during this period in Connell and IrvingClass Structure in Australian History(1980), 51, 54. Google Scholar

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51.Connell andIrving, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Ruling Class,” 36. Google Scholar

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60.Others have made a similar point:Finch, The Classing Gaze, 11;Bongiorno, The People’s Party, 4. Google Scholar

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62.Finch, The ClassingGaze, 11, 144. Google Scholar

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80.For example, sealers are both “exploited” and “cheated.” SeeConnell andIrving, Class Structure in Australian History(1980), 41. Google Scholar

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147.From the“Symposium on Class Structure in Australian History,”inIntervention, no. 16(1982):Philip McMichael, 20;Burgmann, 25;Rosewarne, 12;Kay Daniels, 16;R. W. Connell andTerry Irving, 33. Other reviews of note includeAnn Curthoys, “Class Structure in Australian History,” The Journal of Australian Political Economy, no. 9(1980):90;Garton, “Class Structure in Australian History (Review),” 134. Google Scholar

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Author details

Paternoster, Henry