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Brian Charles Fitzpatrick (1905–1965)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

Brian Charles Fitzpatrick (1905-1965), journalist, historian, socialist and defender of civil liberties, was born on 17 November 1905 at Warrnambool, Victoria, seventh of eight children of native-born parents Peter John Charles Fitzpatrick, schoolteacher, and his wife Mary Louisa, née Callister. His father's parents were Irish, his mother's Scots and Manx. Books and music were prominent in the children's upbringing. By 1914 the Fitzpatricks were living in Melbourne at Moonee Ponds, Brian attending the local state school. Peter died in 1919 and his eldest son Frank took over much of the family responsibility; Brian rebelled against him. From 1916 he had attended Essendon High School where he won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons, 1925).

In 1922-24 Fitzpatrick concentrated on philosophy and sociology, and gained exhibitions, prizes and scholarships. His chief activities in 1925 were as a founder and chief of staff of Farrago, the student newspaper, and also as a founder of the Melbourne University Labor Club. The conversion was recent: he had been a special constable during the police strike. He was carrying out research into revolutionary organizations in Australia, contributing to the Age, Bulletin and Melbourne Punch, and associating with D. J. Cameron and other Labor leaders.

Fitzpatrick left for England in July 1926, intending to study the British co-operative movement. However, after an adventurous year in London as a journalist, he worked his passage home as a steward. In 1928-30 he was a journalist on the Sydney Daily Telegraph, then returned to Melbourne for a year. At this time he had literary ambitions, writing poems and a largely autobiographical novel, 'The Colonials'; though promising, it could not find a publisher. Songs and Poems (1931) was later an embarrassment, but part of 'Cenotaph' was anthologized. In 1931-32 he was leader-writer and assistant-editor of the short-lived Sydney Labor daily, the World.

At St Patrick's Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne, on 27 August 1932 Fitzpatrick married Kathleen Elizabeth Pitt, a university tutor; they returned from Sydney in 1933 to live at Kew before moving to Toorak. He had been appointed to the Herald as a feature writer. For a while he was a reformed character, shunning his drinking-mates at the Swanston Family Hotel, but the marriage broke up in 1935 and divorce followed on 28 October 1939. He married Dorothy Mary Davies on 25 July 1940 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne. In late 1935 Fitzpatrick had left the Herald and abandoned his literary aspirations in favour of historical research, commitment to political activism and defence of civil liberties.

As a socialist in a period when capitalism seemed to have broken down, Fitzpatrick held the basic view that politics was primarily 'a struggle between the organized rich and the organized poor', and that only the latter had social justice on their side. In 1940 he gave evidence as an expert witness before the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration on the need to increase the basic wage and later appeared in support of the 40-hour week. He could be seen as a fellow traveller of the Communist Party of Australia, especially when the Soviet Union won so much respect during the years of World War II, but, though influenced by Marxism, he would never obey any dogmatic system and knew that assumption of revolution was absurd. Favouring state enterprise and nationalization of monopolies, he had hopes of the Australian Labor Party which he joined in 1942. If he had a political hero it was Maurice Blackburn—but he and Blackburn were soon expelled from the party. Fitzpatrick worked for eighteen months in 1942-44 in the Rationing Commission and the Department of War Organization of Industry. He served, as well, on the Prime Minister's Morale Committee and advised H. V. Evatt on his referendum proposals of 1944. But by the end of the war he had lost almost all faith in the A.L.P. and recognized that capitalism would survive.

From 1936 to 1945 Fitzpatrick had concentrated on historical writing. He was initially refused funding by the university, but won the Harbison-Higinbotham prize (£100) in 1937 and 1939. Backed strongly by Professor R. M. Crawford, in 1938-40 he held a major research scholarship (£200 per annum), and in 1940-42 and 1944-45 a £500 annual grant. His most significant historical works were published in this period: British Imperialism and Australia, 1788-1833 (London, 1939), The British Empire in Australia (1941), The Australian People, 1788-1945 (1946), and the stopgap, quickly written Short History of the Australian Labor Movement (1940). In 1943 external examiners on behalf of the university rejected his application for a D.Litt. degree, a judgement glaringly inconsistent with the standard accepted for other historians.

Knowing that Australians could not recognize their capacity to develop as a nation without better understanding of their history, Fitzpatrick had been idealistically devoting himself to sustained historical writing, and for the first time provided a left-wing interpretation which deeply influenced the postwar generation of young academic historians who were extending the teaching of Australian history in universities. He introduced large areas of knowledge for discussion. His style, while often wordy and pedantic, included many effective passages of finely expressed insight.

Fitzpatrick had been stirred into action by the Book Censorship Abolition League (1934-35) for which he began his career as a public speaker. In reaction to alarming anti-democratic legislation, in 1935 Max Meldrum, (Sir) John Barry, (Sir) Eugene Gorman and others formed the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, with Herbert Burton as president; Fitzpatrick drafted the constitution. In January 1937 A.C.C.L. published The Case against the Crimes Act, written by Barry, Gorman and Fitzpatrick, which was followed by a series of powerful booklets. The council's campaign to allow Mrs Mabel Freer to enter the country was successful. In 1938 A.C.C.L. opposed the Federal government's attempt to apply the Transport Workers Act (1937) to wharf labourers on strike, and increasingly gave attention to the maltreatment of Jewish refugees.

Branches (or parallel organizations) were founded in every State. Fitzpatrick had become the driving force simply because he was contributing much more than anyone else; he established a legal panel and carried his proposal that the executive establish a secretariat with himself as general secretary, effectively taking the council to the left, away from its varied liberal supporters. Conflict followed, especially over legislation for a national register in 1939, which led to the defection of several prominent members. Blackburn replaced Burton, and Fitzpatrick gathered other Labor politicians—Frank Brennan, A. D. Fraser, E. J. Ward, Evatt and Reg Pollard—as active supporters. From 1939, for twenty years, Fitzpatrick wrote the periodical leaflet, Civil Liberty.

After the outbreak of World War II, A.C.C.L. was wracked by internal conflict over the National Security Act (1939) and the outlawing of the Communist Party. Although continually criticized for making unauthorized statements, Fitzpatrick consolidated his position. Following Russia's entry into the war, the advent of a Federal Labor government and Japanese attack, he modified his stand on civil liberties, but fought administrative injustices as strongly as ever. He supported his revered friend Evatt over maintaining the internment of some members of the Australia-First Movement, while using his influence to bring about the release of thousands of other internees. His campaign for just treatment of refugees—many of them anti-fascist—was one of his finest achievements. In the later anti-communist years, marked by the attempt to ban the Communist Party and by the royal commission into the Petrov affair, A.C.C.L. survived. It came to be a one-man band. Fitzpatrick's wide range of contacts, knowledge of the law and administrative procedures, and his persuasiveness were formidable. His support in individual cases of injustice, which were often entirely non-political, won the respect of politicians of integrity like Harold Holt who often acted on his advice.

From 1946 Fitzpatrick settled into the role of freelance radical publicist. His scanty income was based on a regular political article in Smith's Weekly (1941-49) and a weekly broadcast on radio 3XY. He undertook hack work for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the Australian Encyclopaedia, and wrote regularly for the Rationalist (1954-65). Meanjin and other cultural journals could pay little for his numerous articles and reviews. His wife's earnings as a secondary and tertiary teacher were critical. Occasionally he was commissioned for minor literary or political writing, or for 'ghosting', and he sometimes worked as a mailsorter or examination supervisor. He eked out a little income from his propagandist monthly publication, the Australian Democrat (1947-50), from Australian News-Review (1951-53) and from Brian Fitzpatrick's Labor Newsletter (1958-65).

No friend of the British Empire, Fitzpatrick had long been an Australian nationalist; Vance and Nettie Palmer, whom he had met in the mid-1930s, had a profound influence on him. They were the models for natural, self-respecting Australianism, and showed a primary concern for development of the arts. Fitzpatrick's close friends Barry, W. Glanville Cook and C. B. Christesen were of like mind. In his later years he focussed on the growing American influence on Australian foreign policy and on America's economic penetration, and was among the first to campaign against involvement in Vietnam. After Russia's invasion of Hungary and Nikita Krushchev's revelations, Fitzpatrick's sympathy for the Soviet Union had dwindled.

In the mid-1950s Fitzpatrick hankered to resume historical work and applied for academic and journalistic posts. Supported for eighteen months by a grant from the Social Sciences Research Council, he wrote The Australian Commonwealth (1956). Idiosyncratic and entertaining, both a long pamphlet and a reference work, it was hardly conventional history, more a statement of the preoccupations of the 'old left'. Thrice invited to apply for university lectureships, he was unsuccessful despite strong support: the chief reasons were political prejudice and alarm at his frequent drunkenness (which rarely prevented his customary early morning start to concentrated work). Requests for grants for research were likewise refused. He responded amiably to the reinterpretation of Australian economic history by Noel Butlin, and in a Meanjin article (1963) demolished the alleged 'Counter Revolution in Australian Historiography'.

Fitzpatrick contributed significantly in three areas, as defender of civil liberties, historian and political maverick. He was a man of many contradictions. As his biographer Don Watson remarked, he was 'a cold-hearted Marxist and a soft-hearted liberal . . . a utopian and a pragmatist', fundamentally a rebel against authority. His energy, power of concentration, determination and speed of writing were phenomenal.

He was of average height, portly, with a florid and eventually ravaged face. His charm, wit and mannered courtesy were notable; he objected to indecent conversation. He turned a polite face to critics, believing that 'circumstance is the arbiter of men's opinions'; thus he held 'malice towards none'. A remarkable range of citizens attended his testimonial dinner in 1964. Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, both noted scholars, he died of hypertensive coronary vascular disease on 3 September 1965 at Tamarama, Sydney, and was cremated. Portraits by Graeme Inson and George Luke are held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Watson, Brian Fitzpatrick (Syd, 1979) and for bibliography and listing of writings
  • Fitzpatrick papers (National Library of Australia).

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Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Fitzpatrick, Brian Charles (1905–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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