Terry Irving is a radical historian, author and educator.
He was one of the founders of the Free University in Sydney in the late 1960s, an activist in the movement to democratise universities in the 1970s, a prominent New Left contributor to the writing of Australian history in the 1980s, and the editor of Labour History – A Journal of Labour and Social History in the 1990s.
From the 1960s he taught in universities in Australia and the United States. He writes on colonial workers’ movements, Australia’s class structure, youth movements and youth policy, labour intellectuals, and radical democracy.
He has written eleven books, including The Fatal Lure of Politics: The Life and Thought of Vere Gordon Childe, Class Structure in Australian History (with Raewyn Connell), Radical Sydney (with Rowan Cahill). His latest book, with Rowan Cahill, is The Barber Who Read History: Essays in Radical History.
Terry with his mother Pat Irving c.1950.
Terry Irving's scholarship is class-focused, popular-democratic and anti-imperialist, continuing a radical tradition of historical analysis in the Australian labour movement that began with V. Gordon Childe.
He comes from a working-class family politicised by the fight against fascism in the 1940s and the defence of peace in the 1950s. Both his parents were communists, as he was during his undergraduate years at the University of Sydney.
Although the Cold War was a bitter time for the left, one could still hope, because there were signs of revolutionary progress in the Third World as colonised subjects rose up and dismantled European imperialism.
This was the setting in which he wrote a doctorate in history at the University of Sydney on the struggle for self-government by the white invaders in Britain’s first Australian colony, New South Wales. His thesis dealt with the transfer of imperial parliamentary institutions, the development of colonial liberalism, and the emerging power of the mercantile bourgeoisie.
In the mid-sixties, having left the communist party, he discovered new forms of resistance in the New Left.
At the University of Sydney, he was involved with supporters of the moratoria against the war in Viet Nam.
Terry was one of the founders of the Free University in Sydney in 1968, with Rowan Cahill and Raewyn Connell.
A course on class analysis at the Free U led to a frequently republished paper, ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Ruling Class’, written with Connell, and their book, Class Structure in Australian History.
During the 1970s he was one of the organisers of several class analysis conferences that brought together young trade unionists and academics.
Terry Irving as Head of Department of Government, Sydney University, 1980's
In 1968 Terry was appointed to the Department of Government and Public Administration in the University of Sydney as a Lecturer. In the 1970s, when the Department was upended by a wave of student and staff radicalisation, he became a prominent figure in the democratisation of the Department. He was its head of Department for six years in the 1980s.
Rethinking prompted by exposure to the New Left turned his mind to the history of working-class politics in Australia. He joined the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History at its inception, and in 1986 became a member of the editorial board of Labour History.
In 1994, in his introduction to a book of original essays by leading Australian and international scholars, Challenges to Labour History, he insisted on the need for labour historians to maintain its sense of moral and political purpose, whether liberal or Marxist in origin.
Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill (2010)
Continuing to puzzle over the kinds of politics available to working people seeking to govern themselves, and the relationship of revolutionary politics to ruling institutions and dominant economic forces, he wrote The Southern Tree of Liberty to explore the anti-democratic consequences of this struggle, showing how representative government suppressed local radical impulses and popular social forces.
Terry Irving has always believed in collaborative intellectual work, not only to realise the collegial goal of universities but also to affirm the ethics of socialism.
He has co-authored publications with Baiba Berzins, Raewyn Connell, Lucy Taksa, Carol Liston, Rowan Cahill, Sean Scalmer, Peter Gathercole, David Maunders, Geoffrey Sherington, Gregory Melleuish and Allen Seager.