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Publication: November 2021
Format: Paperback
ISBN:  978-0-646-83927-1




Sometimes people read history and are overwhelmed.

They discover a nightmare past of conspiracies and duplicities.

Only the doings of powerful people are recorded.

They conclude that history has no room for people like them.

In these essays, Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving show that a knowledge of history can make people want to act in order to make history.

The authors criticise mainstream history for its top-down certainties. Instead, they see history from the bottom-up, acknowledging the productivity and creativity of working people.

They argue for a radical history that reveals uncertainties and challenges, leaving everything, including the future, open.




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'Only rarely does a book remind you of what books are for. The Barber Who Read History, by the authors of the spectacularly popular Radical Sydney (2010) did just that, for me. Cahill and Irving invite us to ‘imagine history from the bottom-up’, to recognize the common people as the source of the ‘greatness’ and ‘achievement’ traditionally attributed to a few at the top. By the time I finished reading The Barber I was inspired.'

Hannah Forsyth (Australian Catholic University),  Radical Sydney/Radical History, 21 April 2023

'These essays constitute a resounding call to arms. They are also a testament to an under-appreciated thread of twentieth-century intellectual life, to which [Irving and Cahill] are distinguished contributors.'

Ben Huf, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 53, no. 4, Dec 2022

‘[The] authors’ reflections on their difficulties and dilemmas in publishing Radical Sydney are interesting and illuminating. Their argument about what radical history should be and their critique of current labour historians is both provocative and challenging. This valuable collection is written not to make friends but comrades.’

Charlie Fox, Labour History, vol 123, no. 1, November 2022

'Cahill and Irving have demonstrated in their life-long work their commitment not only to describe history truthfully but also to write it with the purpose of changing society to end oppression and exploitation and to empower the oppressed. … Their book persuaded me that if we want to write history as a political act and to make its readers become political actors and history makers then we have to be able to tell a good story that can both inform and inspire.'

Peter Boyle, Green Left, issue 1350, 21 June, 2022

‘The Barber Who Read History is an important book for anyone interested in labour history and how it can survive as a political resource for workers and social movements. The chapters are short and written without academic jargon. There is humour and there are fascinating insights into the ebbs and flows of labour history in this country. Most importantly, the rationale and suggestions offered by Cahill and Irving for a regeneration of radical history can serve as a useful starting point for considering the future of historiography’s contribution to progressive causes.’

Jeff Rickert, The Queensland Journal of Labour History, issue 34, March 2022

‘For anyone interested in the writing of history, particularly in Australian universities, this book of essays is a welcome contribution. In writing The Barber Who Read History, Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving provide an alternative radical philosophy and politics of writing history.’

Judy McVey, Solidarity, 13 May 2022

​'Cahill and Irving put their hearts and minds on their sleeves, outlining how they came to be the thinkers and writers that they are: ‘Never Neutral’. That is a necessity. They set out the way they think and write about radical history, the practices of teaching, and the essential political role of radical historians. They set out why labour history needs to be wider than unions and ALP politics. Terry Irving’s deep analysis of the urge to liberty in white Australian history – The Southern Tree of Liberty – exemplifies this.'


Neale Towart

Trades Hall Press, March 2022

'For radical historians such as myself … Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving’s The Barber Who Read History happily presents itself as both guide-book and vindication. One rapidly learns, across the scatter of loosely-linked interpretive essays and shorter thought-grabs, reviews and personal revelations, that one is not really alone in falling between the cracks in the academic edifice or in standing at the outskirts of intellectual preferment, ducking and dodging the approved institutional etiquette and rules under the cock-eyed gaze of one’s peers.  I have devoured this crusading little volume with all the relish of warm acknowledgment and acute identification.'

Raymond Evans, historian and poet

Recorder, Number 303, March 2022, pp. 9-10

Read the full review

'Irving and Cahill issue a call to arms for scholars both within and without the academy. ... Unlike the tepid postmodern and post-structural theories that find themselves cut off from an analysis of social power in a mire of discourse and representation, Cahill and Irving do not resile from naming the oppressive forces that radical scholars seem to be in perpetual struggle against – the neo-liberal university and its bloated corporate robber-barons, the multinational publishing giants that turn enormous profits monopolising research largely conducted with public money; the state and the discreditable people it puts in its employ. If radical history is to serve the functions Cahill and Irving expect of it, then precisely this willingness to identify and label the key players, the good guys and the villains, is required. ...The book inserts itself into the living tradition of radical history ... It seeks to preserve the best of this tradition ... as a source of current political inspiration and instruction.'

Brett Heino, Lecturer in Law, University of Technology Sydney

Progress in Political Economy, 25 January 2022

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