Bruce Scates, A New Australia. Citizenship, Radicalism and the First Republic. Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. vii, + 261. Illustrated, Bibliographic Notes, Index, ISBN 0-521-57596-6. $A29.95, paperback.

Reviewed by Bobbie Oliver, Curtin University.

Bruce Scates has established a reputation for careful research and excellent scholarship, and his study of the radical ideologies of the 1890s – anarchists, socialists, feminists, single taxers, and republicans – benefits from meticulous attention to detail and thorough research. The book explores many themes, but one that is particularly recurrent and pervasive is citizenship. How is citizenship understood by feminists, radicals, republicans, monarchists, utopians, and others?

A New Australia‘s six chapters discuss such issues as the expression of radicalism and the relationship to class and culture (1); the transmission of knowledge through reading (2); millenarian movements (3); communal land settlements (4); poverty, protest and unemployment (5) and gender (6).

Scates’ thesis is that many of the old explanations concerning the formation of the Australian Labor Party, the woman suffrage movement and the rise and fall of Socialist movement in the last decade the nineteenth century, are no longer adequate, in the light of available documents of the time. Furthermore, he addresses the propensity of Labor historians to `skim over Labor’s origins in a few introductory remarks’ and to emphasise `”big fellas” of the stature of Evatt, Whitlam and Lang’ to the exclusion of the rank and file. Scates aims, therefore, to write a more `”open” and contingent history, one in which there is room for struggle and choice’ (p. 8. 8) and one which has not stuck rigidly to a stereotyped interpretation of the `mainstream’ of Labor ideology.

The book contains a number of significant and well-founded assertions, one of which is that the various ideologies of and alliances between groups in the period studied were much more fluid than they were in, say, the mid twentieth century when much of `Old Left’ writing that Scates debunks was generated. In the 1890s and early 1900s, Labor and Socialist movement attracted many `fellow travellers’ – some stayed and some drifted away or `ratted’ spectacularly by later allying themselves with conservative politics. It is important to remember that Marxism, for example, was not well known in Australia before the 1920s; in fact, while `in the twentieth century Marxism became the dominant socialist discourse’ in the latter 1800s `it competed with any number of rivals’.

cates points out, for instance, (p. 170) that `Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward was by far the most popular exposition of socialism in this period, its sales alone far exceeding all the Marxist treatises put together’. The subject of this work, `utopian fantasy’, pervaded many ideologies of the era but was most influential in William Lane’s work New Australia and his attempt to form a cooperative colony in Paraguay (pp. 187 ff.).

The relationship between the single taxers and the wider radical movement exemplifies the way that various groups fell in and out with each other. Scates shows (for example, pp. 64 ff) that groups such as single taxers, socialists and anarchists initially found common ground in `the social problem’ – that is, inequality. Why, they asked, `in an era of unprecedented human achievement, was there suffering and want? Why did the hovels of the poor still border the mansions of the wealthy?’ The answer to these questions was commonly held to be that `labour alone created the wealth… The rich maintained their wealth through the power of monopoly, their exclusive ownership of the means of production forcing the poor and landless to toil for them.’ The solutions advocated by these groups, however, proved divisive in their variety and contradictory nature. While the single taxers put forward Henry George’s theory that differences in wealth would be abolished by taxing the value of land, socialists instead offered a collectivist philosophy which required unprecedented state intervention. Private enterprise would be replaced by state-run firms and communal living. Others, such as William Morris, saw the solution was a return to the pre-industrial era in which `large scale industry is replaced by the loving labour of the craftsman; forests overrun the ruins of factories and slums, [and] humanity retires to “an epoch of rest”‘ (p. 67).

Superimposed on these apparent distinctions, however, were further differences. Scates points out (p. 72) that even one branch of the Single Tax League, for example, could harbour `all political varieties’. In each case, however, the theorists were working through concepts of citizenship, and, in particular, how to bring to full citizenship the poorest and most downtrodden of the classes.

In Chapter 5, A New Australia turns to the consideration of that section of society whom the theorists strove most to uplift – the poor and unemployed. Its main objective (as with the rest of the book) is to look beneath the stereotypes of previous scholarship and discover `an understanding of those whom the depression hurt the most: the unemployed’ (pp. 136-137). Scates writes about the circumstances of these people with a passion that is largely absent from the earlier chapters. The images of families in inner city Sydney or Melbourne during the 1890s depression read like the pages of a Dickensian novel: large families with the male breadwinner unemployed, trying to subsist on the wages of women and children; children selling flowers for eight pence a day; a family found starving in a bare house with nothing but old sacks to cover them. Charities tried to assist, with officers and volunteers sometimes redeeming clothing from the pawnshop `the overcoats, blankets and baby clothes the cold, sick and hungry could no longer spare’ (p. 145). The poor may have been ground down, but they could also be militant. The chapter opens with a description of an angry protest involving several thousand unemployed at Queens Wharf, Melbourne, in August 1890. They were not always passive victims – but, as the chapter goes on to show – it was the passive victims, `the deserving poor’ that the state condescended to assist through soup kitchens and other inadequate charitable means. Those who protested, demonstrated, or shows signs of `immoral living’ by resorting to prostitution or other crimes were imprisoned and had their children removed to reformatories.

Scates shows that the demonstrations of the 1890s became particularly threatening to the enforcers of law and order because they moved out of the poor districts and the areas that were known to be agitators’ territory (the Sydney Domain, the Yarra Bank) and gathered near the houses of Parliament and Trades Hall. Could citizenship be grasped through `mob rule’? One example of community cooperation was Melbourne’s Salvage Corps which `salvaged’ goods or furniture that had been confiscated by landlords from tenants unable to pay the rent. Orators also encouraged crowds to practice `selective law breaking’, taking advantage of the increased police presence at inner city demonstrations by carrying out a little burglary in the `palatial’ suburban houses of the well to do (pp. 155-156). Another example was a protest by mothers, many with babies in their arms, who marched on Parliament in Melbourne in 1892, pleading for work for their male breadwinners. Scates observes: `All asserted their citizenship in a country where citizenship was denied them’ (p. 158).

But the unemployed were isolated. Many unemployed activists were `prosecuted on any pretext’, imprisoned on such charges as using `seditious language’, `vagrancy’ or for `abusing’ police. Others were intimidated by savage beatings. The government’s solution was to provide unemployed males with free rail passes to the country where they could not find work and were left to wander from station to station begging, or to establish work camps in Gippsland where old and young alike received `the minimum amount of nourishment for the maximum amount of labour’. Scates’ description of the conflict between the unemployed and the mainstream labour movement, too, is a salutary reminder to labour historians that there were many divisions within the working class as well as between classes.

Scates’ concluding chapter, entitled `A Citizen First’ examines `women, Socialism and the politics of gender’ and observes that, even in William Lane’s brave new world in Paraguay, women did not achieve equality. Despite Lane’s remarkably progressive advocating of sexual as well as social reform (including divorce), New Australia foundered on the `traditional sexual division of labour’. Men worked in the fields; women cared for children, mended socks, cooked meals. The leadership remained entirely male in both New Australia and Cosme, the group which broke away to form an independent colony. Women were given the vote but dissuaded from using it (p. 191). Despite these drawbacks, however, Scates concludes, the radical movements of the 1890s were empowering to women and were `a vehicle for realising their citizenship’ – of which obtaining the franchise was a significant step.

There are few faults to find with A New Australia. In some places, the writing is perhaps a little pedestrian. As so often in historical writing, Scates’ capacity to hold the reader’s interest increases when the text comes down to individuals rather than theories and movements. Unfortunately, too, this excellent book has been marred by some careless proofing and editing which does no credit to a major press such as Cambridge. Examples include `were’ instead of `where’ and the omission of a word `sparsely [populated?] areas’ in the first few sentences of p. 130; `clamoured’ instead of `clambered’ (p. 150) and the incorrect use of the apostrophe (e.g. typology’s on p. 159).

These small irritants aside, A New Australia deserves a wide readership. It is the type of book that one will use as a reference for years to come.

Dr. Bobbie Oliver can be contacted at The Research Institute for Cultural Heritage Curtin University of Technology GPO Box U1987 PERTH WA 6845