Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kamenka, Eugene (1928–1994)

by David W. Lovell

This article was published online in 2018

Eugene Kamenka (1928–1994), philosopher and historian of ideas, was born on 4 March 1928 at Cologne, Germany, son of Serge Kamenka, engineer, and his wife Nadja, née Litvin, a botanist. Both were Russian Jewish political émigrés who had met and married in exile. Neither was welcome in the Soviet Union, Serge being a Menshevik and Nadja, an anarchist. With the consolidation of Nazi rule, the family migrated to Australia in 1937 sponsored by relatives of Eugene’s mother. In his early teens he attended Sydney Technical High School, where his precocious intellect was quickly apparent. Having mastered the language, he came first in English in the New South Wales Leaving certificate examination (1944) and appeared on the 2GB radio program, ‘Youth Speaks.' While in his teens, Kamenka tried to join a Trotskyist group but was under age.

Enrolling at the University of Sydney in 1945, he was influenced by John Anderson, Challis professor of philosophy, who taught pluralistic theories of society, emphasising initiative and enterprise, and the centrality of free criticism. A member and secretary of the university Labor Club, Kamenka was also active in Jewish youth organisations, and became director of publications of the Zionist youth department. In 1948, attracted to the newly constituted state of Israel by his secular Zionism, he successfully applied for a Palestine scholarship offered by the Youth and Education department of the Jewish Agency to work in the country. He left university in 1949 before completing his degree.

While in Israel Kamenka married Miriam Mizrachi in 1950 (they were to divorce in 1964) and in 1951 he became cable sub-editor of the Jerusalem Post. He returned to Australia the following year, and worked as a sub-editor with the Sydney Morning Herald (1952–54). At the University of Sydney (BA, 1953) he completed his degree at night. Having been awarded first-class honours in philosophy, he secured a scholarship to the Australian National University (ANU) and in 1955, commenced postgraduate work.

The demands of writing for a living had honed Kamenka’s fluent and elegant, but nevertheless economical and precise, writing style. He interrupted his ANU studies to lecture in philosophy (1958-60) at the University of Malaya, Singapore. While there he met Alice Erh-Soon Tay, a lawyer. Their liaison created a scandal and they quit their posts. They travelled to London, intent on writing for a living, and developed the collaboration that would last virtually up to Kamenka’s death.

In 1962 Kamenka’s doctorate was conferred by the ANU. His thesis, ‘The Ethical Foundations of Marxism,’ was published that year and remains his best-known work. The ANU appointed him research fellow in the Department of Social Philosophy (1961) and in the History of Ideas Unit (1962); P. H. Partridge and John Passmore, like him former students of Anderson, were colleagues. Kamenka and Alice married in Canberra on 18 December 1964; the couple spent ten months on exchange at Moscow State University (1965–66) where he studied nineteenth-century Russian and modern Soviet philosophy. Returning to the ANU he was promoted to senior fellow (1966) and professorial fellow (1968). After becoming head of the unit (1969–89), he was appointed foundation chair in 1974. He viewed the ‘history of ideas’ as a cross-disciplinary endeavour combining the methods and content of both history and philosophy: the issue for him was not so much whether a set of ideas was coherent, but how and why it became socially relevant. 

From the mid-1970s Kamenka made major contributions to scholarship and intellectual conversation, both at the ANU and at numerous overseas universities. Many of his articles and monographs were written jointly with Alice, who was Challis professor of jurisprudence at the University of Sydney (1975–2001); none was devoid of some input from her. Their Canberra home was frequently a lively salon of discussion over dinners.

Known for his generosity, thoughtfulness and incisive wit, Kamenka also had a capacious and accurate memory. His main intellectual focus was European social and political thought of the past two centuries—chiefly, socialism and nationalism—though his interests ranged much more widely, especially to justice and the rule of law. Work undertaken during his early career added to the emerging analysis of Marx’s thought as profoundly grounded in Hegelian philosophy. Certain themes, however, were central to his outlook. While acknowledging the complexity and diversity of the human experience, he stressed its underlying universality. He cautioned against the detrimental effects of ideological and other blinkers. Although viewing civilisation as a common project of humanity, he explored the contributions of all cultures. He comfortably identified as both an Australian and a citizen of the world. A prolific writer, he was elected to fellowships in the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (1969), and the Australian Academy of the Humanities (1973), of which he was also secretary (1976–81).

Kamenka retired in 1992 and the history of ideas unit was closed soon afterwards. He was a man of courtly manners and benign appearance. A lifetime of heavy smoking, minimum exercise and the malign effects of his rotund frame were both trumped by prostate cancer that had metastasised to his bones. Survived by his wife, and a son and daughter from his first marriage, he died at home in Canberra on 19 January 1994 and was buried in the Jewish section of Gungahlin cemetery.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Brown, Robert. ‘Eugene Kamenka: 1928–1994. Proceedings (Australian Academy of the Humanities ), 1994, 60-63
  • Cotton, Peter. ‘From Party Reject to Marxian Theorist.’ ANU Reporter, 12 May 1993, 5
  • Kamenka, Eugene. ’Australia Made Me … But Which Australia is Mine.’ John Curtin Memorial Lecture, 16 July 1993. Canberra: Australian National University, 1993
  • Kamenka, Eugene. ‘A Childhood in the 1930s and 1940s: The Making of a Russian-German-Jewish Australian.’ Australian Journal of Politics and History 31, no. 1 (1985): 1–9
  • Passmore, John. ‘Citizen of the World Whose Gift Was Liberty.’ In Special issue Australian Journal of Politics and History 40, no. s1 (1994): 3–5
  • Rupke, Nicolaas A., and David W. Lovell eds. 'Ideas and Ideologies: Essays in Memory of Eugene Kamenka.' Special issue, Australian Journal of Politics and History 40, no. s1 (1994).

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Citation details

David W. Lovell, 'Kamenka, Eugene (1928–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kamenka-eugene-27242/text34759, published online 2018, accessed online 24 August 2019.

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