23 Jul. 2006

Ken Buckley, 1922-2006

Ken Buckley died last Sunday. I never knew him personally but ever since I arrived in Australia his name kept coming up for one reason or another. He was a writer, a teacher and a doer of the Sydney left, present at the creation of a number of its institutions. Most famously, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, which was established after police raided a Kings Cross party he was at in 1963. He was its first secretary, and later president of the national body.

He was also a major player in the establishment of Political Economy at Sydney University, as a supporter and as a member of the committee of inquiry that turned the tide against its enemies in Economics. He had moved to Australia from his native Britain to take up a lectureship in Economic History in 1953 – opposed by ASIO, as he later found out, because of his active role in the Communist Party. (In fact, he was a member of the Marxist Historians Group along with Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and Maurice Dobb.) He became a gadfly at the university, setting up the union which became the National Tertiary Education Union, along with Ted Wheelwright.

But I first came across Buckley’s name in Sydney’s second-hand bookshops. Looking to get up to speed with Australian political and economic history, I came across the series he edited with Wheelwright in the 1970s and 80s, Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism. It’s a fantastic set of books collecting about fifty articles on Australian history and contemporary political economy from various Marxist perspectives. The pair used the material they collected to write their own economic history, published as No Paradise for Workers (covering 1788-1914) and False Paradise (1915-1955). Unfortunately the planned third volume won’t be written.

The whole lot are well worth reading. Unfortunately, they’re all out of print. As it happens, plans are already afoot to digitise the essay collection. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, they are worth hunting down second-hand. Gould’s in Sydney has remainders of the Paradise books.

The Sydney Morning Herald has a good obituary, and his own autobiographical reflections are here.