Bruce Childs & Gramsci?

Christopher Sheil


We have come here not only to mark the 40th anniversary of the Evatt Foundation, but to honour Bruce Childs on his retirement from the Evatt executive. In practice, these two aims are effectively the same, given that Bruce has been a central figure in Evatt’s governing body for 21 years, or over half the Foundation’s history. To my mind, Bruce — along with his dear friend and comrade, the wonderful Jeannette McHugh — has been the embodiment of the Evatt Foundation.


I know others will want to speak of him, so I’ll be brief. I think the best way I can encapsulate how I understand Bruce and the role he has played in the Evatt Foundation and more broadly is to tell you a little story about the time I was invited to write an account of his life and career for The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, volume 4, covering Senators who served between 1983 and 2002.

After doing my research, I put together an account of Bruce’s remarkable trajectory through the labour movement and set it somewhat in the context of his life. I then sat back, as you do, and looked at the draft and tried to think of ways to lift the text up a little. I recalled that Bruce’s wife, Yola Lucire — and here I should say immediately that in thanking Bruce for his great contribution to the Evatt Foundation, I also say a big thank you to Yola, who has hosted countless Evatt events at her home in Edgecliff with unbounded generosity.


Getting back to the story, in trying to work out how to make my draft of Bruce’s life and career sing a little, I recalled that Yola, in her surprising way, would often refer to Bruce as a ‘Gramscian intellectual’. Aha, here, I thought, was something to work with, so I added a quote from Yola to that effect and then, as you do, rummaged through Gramsci looking for something appropriate. I duly did and sent the copy off to the Department of the Senate.


Several years later, I received the draft copy and was distressed to find that, while my concluding Gramsci quote had survived the editor, the quote from Yola had not. The upshot, I thought, was embarrassing. After a rather formal account of the former Senator’s life and career, suddenly the story ended with a quote from Gramsci, without the connecting thread to the substance of the article via Yola. To my eye, just dropping Gramsci in at the end, out of the blue, appeared unforgivably pretentious, as I explained to the editor. By this time the Dictionary had a new editor, and she warmly assured me that she completely understood my discomfort and told me I could rest in the knowledge that Yola’s quote would be restored in the final copy.


Several more years passed before the volume was published in 2017, by which time the Dictionary had another new editor, the fourth, I think. Anyway, on opening the entry on Bruce, I was dismayed to discover that not only had Yola’s Gramsci reference not been restored, the problem had been resolved by also removing mine. It seems that, if you’re lucky, the Australian Senate might be able to handle one Gramsci reference per article, but never two.


In fairness, I should say that the editors also made some improvements to my text but let me conclude by restoring what was left on the cutting room floor. The brilliant Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci, suggested that three fundamental elements must converge for a political party to exist — and he might have been discussing a trade union or the labour movement at large. The effectiveness of the party, he further argued, depended on the extent to which the proportionality between these three elements was optimised.


First, Gramsci wrote, there must be a mass element, generally composed of ordinary men and women whose participation mainly takes the form of loyalty and discipline. Secondly, there must be a principal cohesive element, with centralising and innovatory power; the leaders, or ‘generals’ as the militantly minded Gramsci wrote.


Thirdly — and it was here where I thought he wrote as if to define the role of Senator Childs in the effectiveness of the Hawke-Keating government — Gramsci said there must be an intermediate element, an element ‘which articulates the first with the second and maintains contact between them, not only physically but also morally and intellectually.'


That role is how I understand Bruce, it’s how I make sense of Yola’s description, and it’s how I have broadly understood the relationship of the Evatt Foundation to the labour movement over the time I have been associated — and it’s how I hope it will continue to see itself into the future.


So, on behalf of the Evatt Foundation, thank you Bruce, thank you for your guidance, thank you for your wisdom, thank you for all your often-overlooked practical work, and speaking personally, thank you for your wonderful company.


In sum, thank you Bruce for your unmatched contribution to the 40-year history of the Evatt Foundation.

Remarks on the 40th anniversary of the Evatt Foundation by the President, Christopher Sheil, NSW Parliament House, 27 September 2019. Photographs by Sarah May. Bottom, L-R: Andrew Mack, Tina Zhou, Matt Pulford, Bruce Childs (sitting), Jeannette McHugh, Tanya Plibersek, Christopher Sheil, Yola Lucire, Frank Stilwell (obscured), Erin Watt, Danielle Celermajer, Eliot Olivier, Alison Rahill, Clara Edwards, and Sally McManus.

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