This paper applies the theory of labour intellectuals developed by Sean Scalmer and me to the lives of Higgins and Rawling, using the insights of Ron Eyerman.
Becoming Labour Intellectuals:
Esmonde Higgins, James Rawling, and the ‘self-referential location of intellectuals’
Why did a generation of young men and women from privileged backgrounds, or trained in universities for privileged lives, became labour intellectuals in the first part of the twentieth century? Using a biographical approach I intend to discuss two Australian men from the same generation but from different class backgrounds. I will focus on the way labour intellectuals could draw on two modernist traditions of intellectual life - the dissenting and movement traditions – in order to understand and critique their relation to modernity. To use a term of Ron Eyerman, whose general approach I am following, I am interested in ‘the self-referential location of intellectuals’, that is, how they assessed the opportunities for intellectual labour in this period of discontent with modernity.1 The moment of shifting one’s allegiance, of becoming labour intellectuals throws these alternative traditions into greater relief.
Esmonde Higgins and James Rawling were born in 1898. They enlisted in the first AIF, they went to university, and they joined the communist party for which they worked full-time as researchers, journalists, trainers, and organisers in the 1920s and 1930s. They got to know each other in the mid-1920s, and in the last years of his life Rawling planned to write a biography of Higgins. Both of them left the Communist Party. Higgins, forced off the Central Committee by the incoming pro-Stalin leadership in 1930, drifted away in the mid-thirties. Rawling made a much more public exit in 1940 after the Soviet Union invaded Finland. I will sketch their separate but intersecting stories in two parts: first, their early-life exposure to dominant values and institutions; second, as young men in a period of war and revolution, their response as intellectuals to the process of defecting from their past. I will show that for Higgins this involved pre-figuring an ideal future, which involved him in developing a new sensibility and practice in the present, but in Rawling’s case, because the future existed only in his millennial dreams, the present was merely an opportunity for revolutionary propaganda, and for an outsider to enter the desirable field of intellectual work.
* * *
Esmonde Higgins, whose father was an accountant in the city of Melbourne, grew up in a middle-class family, advancing through the institutions dedicated to his class. He joined the Boy Scouts, attended the local Baptist Church, was sent to a private school (Scotch College, where he was a prefect and Dux), and went on to the University of Melbourne. He enjoyed his initiation at Ormond College, dutifully drilled when the war broke out, and took seriously his participation in the college Bible study circle. He joined the army, and after the war accepted his uncle’s financial aid to attend Balliol College at Oxford. Underpinning this progress was the support of his family, whose values were also stereotypically bourgeois: frugal, public-spirited, patriotic, prohibitionist and non-smoking. All this made for a somewhat stiff and high-minded atmosphere in the family, as his elder sister revealed in a letter to Esmonde cautioning him against listening to ‘dirty stories’: ‘You know, Blibb, our family as a whole is awfully clean. It’s in our bones to be clean; any contact with dirt is merely an experiment. But hardly any other families find cleanness as easy as we do. So, I think it’s a fair thing for us to establish in this matter a higher standard for ourselves than for others.’2 Within the home, the emotional climate was not exactly cool but mediated, as if genuine feeling between the children and the parents was tolerable only through the love of Christ. His father’s advice for dealing with the outside world, offered to Esmonde formally in writing, showed this retreat into piety: ‘If you take Jesus Christ into your life He will do the rest. He has provided for your care…’ 3
Yet the family had other faces, and Esmonde had an elder sister who enabled him to see them. Nettie was thirteen years older, and by the time he was fifteen she was a poet, a feminist, a socialist, and a teacher with a Masters degree from the University who had recently returned from studying and working in Europe. Through her he learnt to listen for a critical undertone in the family’s apparently conventional engagement with its environment. When his grandmother (who was 88) heard that Esmonde had quizzed the local candidate during the election of 1913 she surprised him by declaring that she would have been a politician if she were a man.4 He was impressed that his mother was interested in eugenics, that she attended Adela Pankhurst’s “at home” in 1914, and that his Aunt Ina was a strong supporter of women’s rights. He recorded that after Sunday lunch his father and uncle would discuss their hopes for Irish home rule.5 The uncle was H.B. Higgins, former Attorney- General of the Commonwealth and then a Justice of the High Court. It was he who had paid for Nettie’s study in Germany, and would pay for Esmonde at Balliol. Nettie and Esmonde were proud of his liberal and humane stance in public affairs. Under Nettie’s influence, expressed through an almost weekly correspondence between them during his adolescence and early twenties, Esmonde became a socialist. He also smoked secretly in his last year at school, discovered alcohol while at Ormond, and broke with his parents’ understanding of Christianity.
* * *
James Normington Rawling’s father was a miner in the Hunter Valley. The year before he was born his mother joined the Wallsend branch of the Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. The RLDS traced its roots back to the church founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith Jr, who claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon. Smith dedicated his life to establishing Zion, the kingdom of God on earth, in anticipation of the return of the Saviour. After Smith’s death, the founders of what would soon become the ‘Reorganised’ church refused to follow Brigham Young and the majority of Mormons into Utah in the 1840s. In early twentieth century Australia the RLDS was a working-class church. There was a strong RLDS branch in Balmain, and in 1917 four branches in the Hunter: at Gosford Road, Hamilton West; at the School of Arts in West Wallsend; at Teralba; and at Thomas Street, Wallsend.6 In these working class districts converts were attracted by the opportunity, offered by the RLDS, of ‘fleeing to Zion’ where there would be neither rich nor poor, by the church’s ‘multi-tiered priesthood’ which allowed all to be ‘called according to their gifts’, and by the decentralised and democratic form of church governance.7 It was a small and select group. There were just 42 members in the Wallsend branch in 1908, which was about a tenth of the entire New South Wales membership.8 The Saints were encouraged to live near their church, for to the extent that it functioned as a cultic form of religion the RLDS prized its sense of separation from society and aimed, like the German Social-Democratic Party at that time, to provide for its members from the cradle to the grave, and beyond in the Saints’ case.
Saints were busy people. To be saved it was not enough to have faith; one had to actively affirm for oneself and others the importance of obedience to the laws of the Gospel, always as a way of preparing for the ‘latter days’. Believing in the reality of the Millennium, when Christ would reign personally on earth, meant that Saints had little reason to take part in struggles for social justice or improvement in the present regime. In turn this meant they accepted the status quo. Generally, the social and political attitudes revealed in their journal, the Gospel Standard, were conservative and puritanical. It warned in 1903 against the tyranny of labour leaders, although with the qualification that organised labour and capital were equally bad, both needing ‘the refining influences’ of the Gospel.9 Members were quick to enlist when the First World War broke out. The church supported the prohibition of the sale of alcohol, and opposed the smoking of tobacco, the drinking of tea, and mixed bathing. On the other hand, breathing deeply and drinking plenty of water would protect the saved spirit from the bodily distractions brought on by unnatural stimulants.
James Rawling was ten when he joined the RLDS in a baptismal ceremony at Wallsend, along with his future wife. Four years later he was Wallsend’s elected correspondent for the Gospel Standard. The RLDS gave him the chance to develop as a writer, teacher and leader. He wrote essays on the ‘Bible and Science’ and ‘The Book of Mormon’. He was secretary and then superintendent of the Sunday school. He moved on to the church’s more advanced theological self-education body, the Religio-Literary Society, becoming New South Wales Secretary in 1914, a position to which he was re- elected in 1915. This was also the year that he was ordained a Deacon in the church. A vocation, if not a career, was clearly in his sight. ‘When I first came over to England’, he wrote in 1917, ‘I felt that I could never go back to Australia, or Wallsend at any rate. I felt that I could do just as good a work in England, but now I feel that I am needed [in Australia] and I long and pray for the day when I can go back again and do the work that I have been called to do.’10 His zeal was still evident when he reached the trenches of the Somme:
‘I only just now realise what a great work we are engaged in. What we want in our work is enthusiasm and plenty of it. I begin to realise that there is work for everyone to do and it is now no time to be idle. We must not be cold or luke- warm, we must be red-hot; only men are needed in the church who place the work before everything else.’11
He attended Newcastle Boys’ High School, where, on the basis of his Intermediate Certificate, he was granted a scholarship for his last years of schooling if he went on to the Teachers’ College. Before that could happen, however, he enlisted, in August 1916, without taking the school Leaving Certificate. He knew his duty as well as his vocation. Thus, his politics were framed by imperialism. He recalled hero-worshiping the members of the British cabinet whose photographs appeared in the Newcastle Morning Herald at this time. In 1917, after the Federal elections in which Higgins campaigned for Vida Goldstein and the Labor Party, Rawling wrote to his mother from the Salisbury Plain that he was ‘glad the Nationalist Party got into power. I would not have liked to live in a country with Tudor [the Labor leader] at the head’.
He seemed to have no sympathy with industrial labour either, endorsing the disgust that the soldiers in camp felt for the railway strikers in New South Wales.12 In contrast to Higgins, therefore, he showed no signs of rebelling against his family or his church. He was a patriot, a conformist, and a conservative. His experience of war, however, would begin to dislodge those attitudes from his mind but it would not disrupt the continuities between his RLDS training and his practice of Communism. Indeed, the records of the RLDS showed that he never resigned from the church, and that he resumed an active role in it after he renounced Communism.13
* * *
Esmonde Higgins faced a dilemma in 1916. Like Rawling, he also wanted to enlist, but he had to convince himself, his sister, and his socialist comrades that he was not going to fight as a patriot. A socialist internationalist, he had opposed the war – even to the extent of endangering his close relationship with his sister and her husband, Vance Palmer, both of whom supported the Allies. ‘You brought me up a Socialist, thank you Gug,’ he wrote to Nettie in October 1914,’but I am not going to be an anti-socialist even though you are… You showed me how hideous all Jingoism is, and countenancing this rotten war really must be rank and mangy Jingoism.’14 He said he hoped he would never fight for country.15 How did he come to change his mind?
There were three stages. Higgins, like the Palmers and members of their circle, was a vigorous nationalist. He deplored the absence of Australian studies at the university.16 He hoped that Australia would ‘shake off many of her old-world fetters and develop national characteristics which will enable her to produce a national literature, a national art, and a national policy’.17 Part of such a national policy would be deciding not to fight in Britain’s wars unless Australian interests were served. If that were a national criterion why was the anti-war movement so weak? The inescapable conclusion was that Australian nationalism was weak. The nationalist argument for opposing the war, and it had been Esmonde’s main reason during its first year, suddenly fell away: opposing the war was not strengthening Australian nationalism.18 This realisation marked his first step to enlistment. A second stage involved his relationship with his parents. It began when, having turned eighteen and decided to present for the medical examination, he received a letter from his parents withholding their consent until he was 21. They had collected opinions from nine doctors and professional friends indicating that boys could not handle the ordeal of trench warfare.19 As it happened, at the medical examination the doctors, who thought he was too physically underdeveloped for the military, came to the same conclusion in his case, and dissuaded him. However, he was still determined to enlist at the end of 1917 (at the completion of courses for a pass degree), especially as a way of escaping parental control – a fact anxiously noted by Nettie.20
By this time he was moving to a more positive reason for supporting the war. Superficially, he was adapting his nationalist argument. The extent of our sacrifices on the battlefield, he said, had transformed the war into a nationalist experience, but this was barely a move that distinguished him from the patriotic ruck. More revealing was his statement to the founder of the Young Australia National Party, J.B. Steel, that to stand aside now would be ‘unnaturally cold, heartless, and disgusting’.21 He was now taking his third step, integrating his desire to enlist with his general political position, in which his feelings, his political practice, and his perspective on change were fused. His position was too nebulous and contradictory to be called an ideology, although it drew on systems of political, ethical and metaphysical thought. Perhaps it is best described as a set of connected principles for an exemplary life, for the practice of politics within one’s own span, as an art of living.22 Not that it confined politics to this personal sphere, but it did imply that this was the source of wider efforts, and of conflict with formal doctrine and organisation (as Higgins would discover after he joined the Communist Party).
From his letters to Nettie we know that Esmonde worked out these principles as he reflected on his growing perception that the war was a nation-building experience. At an Ormond Bible Study Circle he found himself defending compromise. ‘If you wanted to do any good you would have to use tact and put up with things, no matter if it might come pretty near cowardice, so long as it wasn’t cowardice … No rule could be laid down. I thought that everyone ought to work out for himself what is principle, yet expedience seemed more than mere rottenness … Principle must have something to do with Practice, or what is it good for but as a mental exercise?’23 This was a point of view he had been shown at the end of 1914, when Nettie’s friend and his tutor in Philosophy, Katie Lush, explained that one could change one’s position on the war if ‘pure reason’ gave way to ‘practical reason’ (for example, if the argument for internationalism was not able to cope with the need to relieve human suffering).24 By the middle of 1916, Esmonde could write that ‘”No Compromise” seems the most selfish doctrine on the face of the earth.’25 In contrast, he was coming to believe in the need to die for an ideal, to sacrifice himself, to overcome what he perceived as his own selfishness:
It is selfishness that has made the world so squiffy, and I am sure it would be selfishness for me to stay here. … My case is: nothing seems likely to be gained by going, but yet I feel I have no right to be so unsympathetic and stand aloof not to go.26
Yet he did have a strategy for change, although on this occasion he failed to identify it as such. Just being sympathetic was a strategy. Today we would call it a cultural strategy that would teach through example. In Esmonde’s case it was cultural in the more accepted sense of expanding the love of beauty in the working class. As he spelt this out anxiously to Nettie: ‘I feel that I should be able to do something in the way of trying to reconcile ideals and practice, to make culture less top-heavy, and to make reform less purely selfish and material.’27
And so Higgins joined the AIF in November 1917, which meant that he was able to campaign against conscription in his uniform in December. He served in the 6th Field Artillery, arriving in France in late October 1918 to join the Army Education Scheme. He lectured on political economy and Australian history to soldiers who found it absolutely mystifying that Esmonde regarded historical knowledge as a national resource. Still, he was pleased that he could mix with ordinary folk and learn as he put it ‘what was natural for a human being’. He was worried however that he could always see both sides of a question, but that was the price to be paid for basing your politics on being human. In January 1919 he was released from his duties so that he could take up his uncle’s offer to enter Balliol College, Oxford.28
* * *
In the same week in 1917 that Higgins enlisted in Melbourne, James Rawling entered the trenches in France. He was in the 9th Infantry Brigade and the 35th Battalion, which was deployed around Le Touquet. Although it was, in his words,’ a cushy sector’, he nonetheless experienced it as a liminal moment that would involve him in his first rejection of constituted authority.29 Knee deep in mud he surveyed the ruin and desolation. Firing a Lewis gun with little apparent result he was soon disillusioned with war, describing it as ‘the apotheosis of stupidity and misery’.30 With his fellow soldiers he developed a ‘vested interest in keeping the war stable – as it was – those who wanted raids and offensives were our enemies.’31 The routine was four days in the front line, four days in support, followed by four nights in the back of the lines carrying supplies. Barely a month after arriving at the front he claims to have been the ring-leader of a jack-up. Arriving back from the front on 7 December, 1917, the officer called them out for immediate fatigue duty. But: ‘we stayed in our dug-outs and refused to answer the call either of patriotism or sergeant-major.’ They were punished later by being forced to stay an extra four days in the trenches.32
It was an impulsive act (there would be later examples) but one that was in line with his calling in the RLDS, which required an acceptance of being both an outsider, as the bearer of special knowledge about the divine plan, and a leader, whose duty it was to spread that knowledge. Rawling again showed independence, and a commitment to principle over experience, when he voted a few weeks later for conscription in the second referendum, arguing that ‘if we had to fight the war then all should be in it’. His fellow soldiers, with the smell of the trenches in their nostrils, voted ‘no’, and ‘some were highly indignant that I should help to bring men to the hell of the war in France.’33 Yet as the war dragged on, and as his revulsion at its cost in human life increased, Rawling found a principle, the loss of free will, to justify his disillusion. Two months before the armistice he wrote:
I have been doing some thinking lately and have begun to realise that what is known as the glory of war is non-existent. One sees everywhere one’s fellow men lying dead around one and one takes no more notice than he did formerly of a dead dog. One sees his comrades and best friends falling around him and can do nothing to prevent it … But we have to go through this terrible war to bring about peace.’34
After the armistice Rawling joined the Army Education Service, becoming Battalion Education Officer and earning another stripe. Not long after Higgins went off to get his degree from Oxford, Rawling embarked for Australia to finish his schooling in Newcastle.
* * *
For Esmonde, the five and a half years before he returned to Australia were rich with incident and friendship. He spent a summer in Ireland and another in Russia, which earned him a caution from the Master of Balliol that he was in danger of being sent down. He joined the British Communist Party at the end of 1920. He mixed in a circle that included Raymond Postgate, Tom Wintringham, Margaret and Douglas Cole, all later luminaries of British socialism. He fell in love with Rose Cohen, who would die in the Gulag35. He was paid for his research with money from the Soviet Union, and he was a minor player in the secret intrigues of ‘the nucleus’, a group of young intellectuals, who ultimately gained control, with Moscow’s help, of the British Communist Party. He had to review – and reject – the arguments of his uncle’s A New Province for Law and Order, and of Gordon Childe’s How Labour Governs. He became a close friend of and assistant to the British Communist Party’s only proletarian leader of real charisma and power, Harry Pollitt.
Higgins did not become a communist because he discovered Marxist theory; rather he embraced Marxism as the expression of a particular kind of politics, a revolutionary politics based on defending and spreading the regime recently set up in Soviet Russia. It was not that he was disinterested in theory. Soon after arriving in Oxford he had joined the Socialist Society where, as one of a handful that were interested in theory, he organised a series of discussions around a pamphlet by Cole.36 Of course, he was also exposed to Marxism as a student of history. He was attracted to the materialist conception of history, as were his friends Clem Lazarus and ‘Joe’ Hancock (a.k.a. W. K. Hancock).37
His sister Nettie agreed with him ‘in thanking Marx for outlining the economic interpretation of history…’ which had had a good influence on many otherwise commonplace historians.38 His brother-in-law Vance Palmer welcomed the power of the materialist conception to make sense of international affairs after the armistice.39 None of these people became communists.
So how did Esmonde, who always saw both side of a question, become a communist? We can trace the process through his continuing struggle to define his role in relation to the ‘ordinary people’ whose lot he was determined to improve. The fundamental problem for Higgins (and for other radical middle class intellectuals of his generation) was that the movement that was organising the ‘ordinary people’ was a labour movement. It identified with the experience of labour, of work, as the source of its sense of injustice, and of its claim for dignity. Whatever program it articulated always remained tied back to that experience. Higgins, for as long as he was an intellectual, would never share that experience, and the life-world that grew out of it. What he might be able to share, however, with his working-class comrades, was a proletarian public sphere, a deliberately constructed milieu and field of ideas in which ‘workers’, and ‘intellectuals’ were held together in the same ‘public’ by the mediating and directing role of a revolutionary party.40
Clearly, revolution and the revolutionary party were the new objects in Higgins’s cognitive world, as they were to thousands of other intellectuals at this time. To embrace them he needed to be able to frame them in his own thought, that is, to recognise them as objects that he already knew. In a long letter to Nettie in August 1919 from Dublin, where he and Vance had met AE and Maud Gonne41, we can see this process at work:
In times like the present, when people are moving and demanding change, it seems hopeless to ally with any people but the out and out revolutionaries, no matter if you don't agree with their aims, because they'll be honest people...The most important thing these days seems to be to smash without worrying what is to be smashed... That's why in Russia I'd be with the Bolsheviks without worrying yet whether I liked their proposed reconstruction, and if I were an Irishman, I'd be a Sinn Feiner just to try to clear away one obvious part of the mess that has entangled Ireland. … In all this queer welter, in which every non- revolutionary has such queer allies, it seems vile to oppose revolutionaries that may be blind and restless and destructive but who at least are sincere....That's why I feel that even revolutions that have not the vast propagandist effect of Dublin 1916 are always inevitably valuable because they keep in the limelight unalloyed sincerity, a thing which is inevitably swamped on the other side and in the world of opportunism.' [By sincerity Higgins means] 'sincerity in the matter of political and social revolution, something that makes a man say, "Damn you and all your blasted half-heartedness. A lot of scheming knaves have turned the rest of you foolish. Think of what you could have if you only tried. And let us try now". …
'If the people in high places are hit sufficiently hard it will not be for them to do the rebuilding, and if the rebels do nothing at all they'll have at least saved their own soul, and have given themselves as examples of the wonderfully rare thing “sincerity”.
'I've been trying not to come to this conclusion, especially after meeting AE and Vance, but it looks indubitable. There's no particular row I want to kick up, or rather no ONE row...And I'd rather be in a row in Australia...'.42
The framing idea here is that of exemplary action, the very idea that he was formulating as he contemplated enlisting in 1917. An exemplary action is one that is ethical in itself, that is honest or sincere because it is not tainted by selfishness, opportunism, or holding on to the status quo. For some time in his letters Higgins had been noting instances of strikes and protests that pointed to ‘the smash’ that was coming.43 Using the idea of exemplary action he assimilated revolution to this frame: it did not matter what the outcome was, revolution would smash and cleanse, allowing men to act honestly, to save their souls. It was also an experience that intellectuals could share with plebeian rebels.
It was not a belief system that he was adhering to so much as a practice. As far as beliefs went he continued to say that he did not know what to think. So, in the absence of firm beliefs about the outcome of revolution, it was inevitable that it would occur to him that exemplary action was not confined to revolution. So, ten days later he was writing to Nettie in a different voice, the voice of the liberal humanist that he had used in 1917. He began by saying that he was not as anxious about the millennium as he was a month ago. ‘I’m realising that the world isn’t a place that would be Eden if weren’t for the Capitalist system… but that the world is made up of mobs of individuals all crammed full of instincts to live and get what’s possible out of life and bring up kids … to get friends and have sprees…, and that all systems, social and political, are very incidental.’ Under whatever system people choose to live, the ‘regulations’ will be irksome, and in most cases advantage the few at the expense of the many.
‘If that is so the mere overthrowing of a few of these “regulations” wouldn’t help matters greatly.’ Rather, the sympathetic intellectual’s role was ‘to make relations smoother’.44 Once more he had returned to the idea of the teacher living the life of the ordinary people, empathising with them as they lived the instinctual life, easing their pain with the balm of culture, communicating with them, as he was to put it almost twenty years later, in ‘the conversation of human interests’.45
There was just one problem. Where was the institutional setting for this practice of ‘teaching by sharing the proletarian life-world’? Twenty years later he would decide that the workers’ education movement fitted this need, but that movement was always an unstable solution, as it negotiated university and state controls and liberal models of pedagogy. In 1919, Esmonde joined the WEA in Oxford, but was turned off by the condescending flavour of its discussions about civilising the agricultural labourers by lectures in the village hall. The alternative Labour College Movement, with its pedagogy based on independent working class education, was more promising as a solution, but before Higgins discovered it he was captured by the romance of revolution, and by the appeal of joining a party that claimed to be the collective intellectual of the working class.
It might never have happened if he had not felt so alienated and friendless at Oxford in 1920. Vance had returned to Australia, and although Esmonde had many acquaintances in Balliol, and was well-liked by fellow students and dons, he had no close relationship (such as he had had with Esmond Keogh and Nettie). He missed ‘yarning’, he was homesick, and he despised the English for their snobbishness, formality, and incomprehension about Australian nationalism. Oxford lacked vitality because it was for dilettantes, for future public servants and academics; it was not training him for any useful role in life.46 Then he went to Russia, worked in a Moscow commissariat, and discovered ‘life in an absolutely different civilisation’. He told his parents that no-one could go to Russia without getting ‘violently excited … one way or another I just had to take the chance of getting excited and becoming unpopular.’ His parents must have groaned as they read on: ‘I’m too wildly excited with these ideas to sink back into an attitude appropriate for getting a job. I’ve never felt anything with the conviction I have in these ‘principles’ … Practically everything I think comes back to them. I can’t forget them or sink them.’ To ignore them would be ‘shirking an obvious duty.’47
So a few months later, after his final exams, he went to work in the Labour Research Department.48 For the next four years his role was to provide intellectual services to British communism. He described a typical week to his parents: on the weekends he wrote and sub-edited for the Workers’ Weekly; his evenings were given over to selling the paper, taking a Plebs League class in Clapham on imperialism, attending his union branch meeting, working for party committees, and more writing for the paper. During the day he worked in the LRD, carrying out contract work for unions and the Soviet government.49 Such busy-ness fulfilled his desperate need for vital and purposeful work, as he well understood. He consciously repelled his non- communist friends, including Nettie. But he knew exactly what he was doing: he was following orders, because like a Jesuit (that was how he described himself to his parents) the party had a place for him in a project that would overcome his sense of separation from the life world of ordinary people. He admitted to being ‘a narrow-minded bigot’.50 Admitting too that the revolution in Britain was not imminent, he still insisted that ‘these days the best thing for people like me to do is to criticise and to analyse the character of the present system; we’ve no chance to do anything but be maliciously destructive…’.51
Meanwhile, as the revolution receded he continued to be deliriously happy. He was the indestructible reveller, the energetic dancer, the weekend cricketer and rambler, the breaker of female hearts, and the boozer who ended too many nights sleeping on the carpet at the LRD.
* * *
The story of how James Rawling joined the Communist Party has to be put together more circumstantially, for he left very little self-reflective correspondence or diaries. The only scholarly article on Rawling, by John Pomeroy, concludes that, as Rawling himself claimed that he had no emotional predisposition or social prejudice towards communism, he must have been intellectually persuaded.52 This concurs with Rawling’s own explanation, which he put to the Victorian Royal Commission on Communism in 1949: that he became interested in communism while writing an essay on Bolshevism for a history honours course at the University of Sydney, probably in 1922.53 In the same vein, Stephen Holt has attributed his embrace of communism, and atheism as well, to discovering Lenin’s theory of imperialism while studying history with Professor Arnold Wood. 54 Apart from the fact that it is unlikely that an English translation of Lenin’s pamphlet would have been available in Australia at that time, the idea that people give up one set of beliefs because they read about another is just implausible. In Rawling’s case, as a Deacon among the Latter Day Saints, his original beliefs had given him respect and a sense of vocation, making the idea even more unbelievable. It is clear that we have to look for some events in his personal life that were so disruptive that he could switch belief systems completely, and some clues about his intellectual practices that would make it possible for him to maintain a sense of continuity in his life.
The argument that he was under the influence of some overwhelmingly powerful idea would work better if he had joined the Communist party only once. In fact he joined three times, which means that the power of the idea must have waxed and waned – in which case we should be looking elsewhere. When he returned from the war he matriculated on the basis of his war service and Leaving Certificate results. He moved to Sydney and studied at the University and the Sydney Teachers’ College between 1920 and 1922. He first joined the Party as he was about to return to Newcastle in early 1924. He soon got cold feet and dropped out. He rejoined in 1927 when he contemplated running for a position in the Newcastle branch of the Ironworkers’ Association. Failing in this aim, he moved back to Sydney in 1928 and became inactive again. Finally, in November 1932, after he had begun to make a mark for himself in the peace movement, he applied for membership a the third time, and soon after became research officer for the Central Committee.
In 1920-21 the RLDS was rocked by a wave of resignations. A sister in Victoria had prophesised that there would be seven years of famine that would destroy much of the country. Saints began to stock-pile food. When the famine did not eventuate disillusionment followed. Two Apostles, sent from the General Church in the United States to investigate, discredited the prophecy but they could not prevent some members leaving the Church. This disturbance is described in a published history of the Balmain branch, of which Rawling would have been a member.55 There is no direct evidence that he was affected by this experience but in July of 1921 he resigned as a Deacon. Another challenge to his equilibrium occurred early the next year: his girl friend, daughter of a prominent RLDS family, was pregnant. A clue to the disturbing effect this had can be seen in the fact that in order to front up to her parents he walked from Wallsend to Gladesville. He had very little to eat, slept in railway waiting rooms, and tried unsuccessfully to cadge the fare. It took him three days. Five days after he arrived he was married to Mary Stewart.56
It was at this moment too that he approached the Communist party, although he was not ready to join. Meanwhile he wrote to a variety of socialist and radical bodies overseas, including the Anthroposophical Society (of Rudolph Steiner), the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the Society for Constructive Birth Control, who sent him a no-doubt useful pamphlet on contraception. And in Australia, it was not the Communist Party but the Rationalist Association that became the object of his organising and proselytising energies.
Rationalism had been dormant in Sydney for four or five years, but Rawling was able to find its members and revive the Association in August 1922. He became the Hon. Secretary-Treasurer, a frequent lecturer, and one of its main controversialists in the daily newspapers. In fact for the next decade Rawling was better known in the press (especially the Newcastle Morning Herald) as a pugnacious baiter of clergymen than as a Bolshevik.
Then, early in 1924 the debacle occurred that would ruin his teaching career. A summons from the Small Debts Court was served on him at school at the instigation of the Rationalist Association. He had been using, perhaps inadvertently, Association money for his own expenses and had fallen behind in the repayments. It was a small sum (perhaps about fifteen pounds), and as the Rationalists soon cleared him of any fraudulent intention the summons was probably the result of personal animosity between Rawling and another member. But Rawling reacted in the wrong way. Fearing arrest, he stayed away from the school. When the Education Department asked him to explain he did not reply. The Education Department then dismissed him. Meanwhile, not having told his wife about his debt, relations at home were strained.57 To find work he was forced to return to Newcastle (where he lived with his mother), leaving Mary and their eighteen-month old child in Sydney. It was at this moment of personal failure and intellectual isolation, a moment when he needs the support of fellow agitators, that he decided to join the Communist party.
There is no suggestion in Rawling’s conversion to Communism that he was involved in working out for himself a new way to live or to relate to others. An idealist he may have been, in the sense that he believed in the possibility of the millennium or the revolution, but he was not utopian in his political practice. As a Rationalist and a Communist he carried on the same kind of work that he had done in the RLDS, and with the same kind of enthusiasm. Indeed, it was this enthusiasm that was both his strength and his weakness, the latter because it blinded him to what he did not want to see. The possibility of bearing witness to his beliefs was what he committed to, not what they meant in practice. Thus, the bolshevisation of the Communist party in the early 1930s simply passed over Rawling’s head, as he would later admit to the Royal Commission.58 In 1929 he had written to the Newcastle Morning Herald defending working and living conditions in the Soviet Union.59 In 1931 he wrote another letter asserting that the Communist party was a democratic organisation, not a minority aiming to overthrow the Government by force.60
An unworldly man, he simply transferred his ‘messianic’ delusion, as he called it, from Zion to Moscow, continuing to satisfy his craving to proselytise through lecturing and writing for the Communist party’s peace fronts, the League Against Imperialism, the Movement Against War and Fascism, and the League for Peace and Democracy.
Throughout his shifts of allegiance (and we might note here that he would later join the Labor party, and then the Liberal party) Rawling maintained a certain independence of spirit. He described himself on several occasions as a ‘lone wolf’.61 The word that comes to my mind is entrepreneurial. He knew he had certain intellectual skills, he recognised his own drive to persuade others, and he wanted to bring these together to make a career in the role of dissenting intellectual, whether in religion or politics. His life was full of attempts to revive or initiate organisations, journals, schools, research bodies, manifestos and conferences. He had to lecture and get published, at very least in the ‘letters to the editor’ page. Yet he was an intellectual entrepreneur in a particular tradition, that of the dissenters who dreamed of the millennium. Near the end of his life, he would write: ‘We – I – alone in a universe without a God – all have failed me and now none offers hope, justice, retribution in a planless world.’ Then he listed the Gods whose plans he had committed to:
‘Jehovah, MCH [the materialist conception of history], Democracy – the Free World – all have failed.’62 There is also a revealing entry about himself and Higgins: ‘I didn’t have to keep arguing the point, as Hig and Lloyd Ross kept on doing.’63 Precisely – whereas Higgins thought his own role as an intellectual was constantly needing definition, Rawling never did. It is moot point which of them ended up the unhappier.
* * *
Sean Scalmer and I have discussed the idea of movement and dissenting traditions of the intellectual in a 1999 article in Labour History.64 Here I will offer just the briefest sketch. Movement intellectuals express the collective identity of a movement, they speak directly and intimately to their audience by working for movement institutions (newspapers, cultural bodies etc), and they grow into their role, enjoying the opportunity to combine conceptualisation with realisation, theory with practice. Movement intellectuals often express a romantic rejection of modernity, valuing for example community over the individual, altruism over selfishness, and feeling over the intellect. Dissenting intellectuals on the other hand draw more heavily on the values of radical liberalism. They believe in a general public interest and in culture as a universal human quality that can be perfected. Because they are involved in this uplifting project they have a more distant relationship with their audience, the general public, but they are nonetheless reacting against the massifying (as in ‘the mob’) and privatising (or anomic) characteristics of modernity’s general public. They seek out their audience through the media and education, particularly, in our period, the popular press and adult education. Soon a market develops for public intellectuals, and a career for the professionally educated, who put themselves forward as mediators between high and popular cultures, elites and masses, ruling and working classes, or culture and politics.
These are ideal types, but they help us understand the lives of Higgins and Rawling, and in turn their stories raise questions about the model. If we think of Higgins in terms of the movement tradition some areas of his life are clearly illuminated. His romantic, altruistic moralism can be understood in this way. But the model movement intellectual is assumed to come from the same class background as the average member of the movement, and Higgins did not. Moreover, the movement institutions of the labour public – the trade unions and the Labor party – were riddled with the kind of opportunism and selfishness that he despised. Thus it was actually quite difficult for young middle-class socialists of this generation to find an outlet for their altruism; Esmonde’s agonising over how to combine his training with his calling was not unique. The appeal of the Communist party was that it was both an avenue for employment and a public-in-formation in which the party bridged proletarian and intellectual life-worlds. Superficially, it appears as if the Communist party was just a variant of the movement tradition, but it may also be said that the deliberate construction of the proletarian public sphere, one that openly rejected the broader public’s values and institutions, is not anticipated in the movement model. Perhaps a new ideal type, a new kind of tradition, that of revolutionary intellectual, needs to be added to the model.
The value of Rawling’s biography is that it alerts us to the fact that the Communist party could also harbour the dissenting intellectual tradition, at least in a particular period. Rawling was employed as the Central Committee’s researcher in 1934, when the rigidities of the ‘Third Period’ line were being overturned by the search for a cross-class alliance against fascism. In this ‘popular front’ period his entrepreneurial impulse and his lecturing, writing and administrative skills were valuable to the Communist party. There is nothing to suggest that his Marxism was more than a mantle, a protective cloak for a man who was otherwise conventional – in his morality, his intellectual practice, and his political philosophy. In this light it would appear that the Communist party was just as opportunistic as the Labor party. Ironically, it was an appreciation of this fact that led to Higgins severing his connection with the Communist party in the late 1930s, just when Rawling was at the pinnacle of his Communist phase.
1 Ron Eyerman, Between Culture and Politics – Intellectuals in Modern Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1994, p.99
2 Nettie Higgins to Esmond Higgins, no date but late 1913 or early 1914, E. M. Higgins Papers, Mitchell Library, Sydney, ML 740/9/393. The details of his early life have been drawn from these letters, and from others in the Palmer Papers, National Library of Australia, Canberra, MSS 1174.
3 Nettie Palmer to Esmonde Higgins, no date but late 1913 or early 1914, E.M. Higgins Papers, ML MSS 740/9/393; John Higgins to E.M.H., 19/12/1916, ibid., 740/11/59.
4 Nettie Higgins to her mother, but during the elections of 1913, 1174/1/
5 Nettie Palmer to mother, 3/5/19115, 1174/1/1462; EMH to Nettie, 0/4/1914, 1065 and 1070; EMH to Nettie, 14/9/1914, 1174/1/1242.
6 Margaret Morris, the official historian in New South Wales of the RLDS (since 2000 known as the Community of Christ), has helped me with information about the Rawling family, the church, and its organisation, for which I am most grateful. My interpretation of this information may not coincide with hers.
7 Paul Henricks, The Hub of the Mission: A Centennial History of the Balmain- Drummoyne Branch of the Saints Church, Drummoyne RLDS, Drummoyne, 1993, p.8
8 Gospel Standard, 1/2/1908
9 Gospel Standard, 15/9/03.
10 JNR to Mary Rawling, 21/11/1917, Rawling Papers, ML 1326, K21942.
11 JNR to Brother Howard, 26/12/1917, ibid.
12 JNR to Mary Rawling, 1/9/1917, ML 1326, K21942
13 Margaret Morris, of the Community of Christ (RLDS), provided this information. Rawling’s papers at the Mitchell Library contain records relating to his later activities in the RLDS.
14 EMH to Nettie Palmer, 3/10/1914, Palmer Papers, National Library of Australia, 1174/1/1259
15 EMH to Nettie Palmer, 16/10/1914, ibid., 1174/1/1274
16 EMH to J.B. Steel, 21/5/17, J.N. Rawling Papers, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University, N57/193
17 ‘Sliprail’ [E.M. Higgins], ‘Australian Nationalism and Some of its Enemies’, Fellowship, vol IV (1), August 1917, p.6
18 EMH to Nettie Palmer, 9/4/1915, 1174/1/1433
19 John Higgins to EMH, 17/5/1916, 740/11/55
20 EMH to Nettie Palmer, 26/6/1915, 1174/1/1586; EMH to Nettie Palmer, 6/3/1916, 1174/1/1579
21 EMH to Steel, 5/11/1917, N57/193
22 When describing the practice of the members of the Free Religious Fellowship, H. Winston Rhodes, in his Frederick Sinclaire (University of Canterbury, Christchurch, 1984, p. 98), refers to their commitment to ‘the art of living’. He has influenced my thinking on this point, although I want to bring out what might be called the politics of living.
23 EMH to Nettie Palmer, no date but mid-1916, 1174/1/1560
24 Katie Lush to Nettie Palmer, 19/11/1914, 1174/1/1300
25 EMH to Nettie Palmer, 26/6/1916, 1174/1/1586
26 EMH to Nettie Palmer, no date but mid-1916, 1174/1/1503
27 EMH to Nettie Palmer, 26/6/1916, ibid.
28 EMH to Nettie Palmer, 8/11/1918 (1174/1/1925); 27/11/1918 (1174/1/1704); 16/1/1919 (1174/1/2006)
29 JNR, undated notes but c. 1940, N57/163
30 JNR to Mary Rawling, 29/11/1917, 1326 K21943
31 JNR undated notes, ibid.
32 JNR diary, 7/12/1917, 1326 K21943
33 JNR diary, 11/12/1917, 1326 K21943
34 JNR to Mary Rawling, 3/9/1918, 1326 K21942
35 Rose Cohen married Max Petrovsky; she and Petrovsky were arrested in 1937 during the Stalinist terror, accused of being members of an anti-Soviet organisation, and shot; in 1958 they were exonerated. See Francis Beckett, Stalin’s British Victims, Stroud, U.K., 2004
36 EMH to Nettie Palmer, 9/8/1919, 1174/1/2212
37 S.C. Lazarus to EMH, 5/5/20, 740/11/123; W.K. Hancock to EMH, 21/12/20, 740/11/143
38 Nettie Palmer to EMH, 5/9/21, 740/9/15
39 Nettie Palmer to EMH, 12/9/20, 740/8/365
40 I have drawn here on David Harvey, ‘The Practical Contradictions of Marxism’, Critical Sociology, vol. 24, number 1 / 2, 1998.
41 AE was the pseudonym of George William Russell (1867-1935), Irish nationalist poet, playwright and painter; Maud Gonne, the widow of John McBride who was executed after the 1916 rebellion, was a nationalist agitator and object of W.B. Yeats’s passion for many years.
42 EMH to Nettie Palmer, 9/8/1919, 1174/1/2212
43 EMH to his parents, 2/6/1919, 740/5/
44 EMH to Nettie Palmer, 18/8/1919, 1174/1/2221
45 EMH to Nettie Palmer, 17/7/1935, 1174/1/1780
46 EMH to his parents, 2/6/1919, 740/5; to his mother, 16/7/1919, 740/5; to his parents 26/8/1919, 740/5
47 EMH to parents, 13/10/1920, 740/6; to parents, 1/2/1921, 740/6
48 Founded as the Fabian Research Department, it had been taken over by the followers of GDH Cole and re-named the LRD. In the early 1920s Cole and his supporters were being challenged by a new generation of socialist intellectuals who were members of the Communist party.
49 EMH to parents, 28/5/1922, 740/6; 25/4/1923, 740/6
50 EMH to parents, 25/4/1923
51 EMH to parents, 13/7/1922, 740/6
52 John Pomeroy, ‘The Apostasy of James Normington Rawling’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 37 (1), 1991, p. 34
53 JNR, ‘Preliminary Statement to the Royal Commission on Communism’, N57/557
54 Stephen Holt, ‘James Normington Rawling, 1898-1966’, National Library of Australia News, July 1998, p. 16. Lenin’s Imperialism was translated into French and German in 1920; the earliest English translation I have found is 1933, when both International Publishers in NY and Martin Lawrence in London printed the work as vol. 15 in the Little Lenin Library.
55 The Balmain branch was the most active in Sydney, and it is likely that Rawling lodged in Balmain with the Stewarts. He was to marry Mary Stewart. See Paul Henricks, The Hub of the Mission – A Centennial History of the Balmain-Drummoyne Branch of the Saints Church, RLDS Drummoyne Congregation, Drummoyne, 1993, p. 10
56 JNR diary, 10/2/1922, 18/2/1922, in ML 1326 K21943
57 JNR to Hugh King, 5/7/1959, ML 1326 K21942
58 JNR, ‘Preliminary Statement to the Royal Commission’ ibid.
59 JNR letter to Newcastle Morning Herald, 11 /10/1929
60 JNR letter to Newcastle Morning Herald, 18/12/1931,
61 JNR to Hugh King, 5/7/1959, ML 1326, K21942
62 JNR diary, 6/1/1957, ML 1326 K21943
63 JNR diary, 30/8/1963, N57/161
64 Terry Irving and Sean Scalmer, ‘Australian Labour Intellectuals – an Introduction’, Labour History, 77, November 1999, pp 1-10.