Published in The Northern Line, an on-line journal dedicated to the life and work of John Anderson, No. 15, March 2014, pp. 6-12; & No. 16 May 2014, pp. 5-9.
An explanation about these letters: In 1977 I began research for a MA (Hons.) thesis at the University of NSW on the Social and Political Philosophy of Professor John Anderson. My joint supervisors were two “Andersonians”, Doug McCallum and Donald Horne.
Doug had previously supervised an honours thesis I had written in 1976 on Karl Popper. In many chats he had referred to Anderson’s thought and writings. So I became interested in Anderson’s ideas and the remarkable influence he had through former pupils and wider intellectual currents. What were his political views, how had they evolved, what kind of ethical and political philosophy could be said to be the distinctive Andersonian tradition, were some questions in mind. Fifteen years after his death his influenced had considerably waned. More than the nostalgia of my supervisors caught my imagination. There was a gap in philosophical understanding of what Anderson’s political philosophy stood for. So the exposition and critique of Anderson’s social and political ideas could be a project of importance.
In my first year, my research included reading journals and newspapers to which Anderson had contributed. In the archives at the University of Sydney there was some material on Anderson that had been deposited by Ruth Walker, Anderson’s former mistress and colleague in the Philosophy Department at the University of Sydney, and some by his widow, Mrs Janet C. Anderson (1893-1988), née Janet Currie Baillie. The then university archivist, Gerard Fischer, told me that there was much material in the family home at 2 Nulla Nulla Street, Turramurra, which seemed to be jealously guarded by Mrs Anderson and her son Sandy, the mostly Newcastle-based philosopher who frequently came home. There was obviously lingering tension between Ruth, living in the Blue Mountains, and Mrs Anderson and both, it seems, had Anderson papers that they jealously protected. Winning their trust and thereby access to their archives was obviously an important part of my research task. A major challenge was to discover what this material might be and thereafter begin to consider its significance.
After less than a year of study, I went part time and commenced work with Mr John Brown, who had been elected Federal MP for Parramatta in the November 1977 elections.
As Mrs Anderson was getting older, I thought it would be important to write, so as to gather some potentially useful insights.
After a year of research, on January 7, 1978 I wrote to Mrs. J.C. Anderson, then 84 years of age, to request permission to do an interview. But she wrote back explaining that her deafness precluded this. She requested that I write with any questions. So I did. On February 3, 1978 I tabulated questions about Anderson’s life before arriving in Australia. I wanted to know certain biographical questions and to ascertain if she possessed manuscripts or other contemporaneous material relevant to the period. A month later and Mrs Anderson responded. She queried whether my biographical questions could possibly be of much value in evaluating the political and social theories of Anderson. One sensed that Mrs Anderson was of formidable intellect.
Perhaps her most significant observation was that “I do not know of any one person who was influential in the life of J.A. at this period, but one publication was – The New Age. This was quite a remarkable publication, dealing with social and political questions, literature, painting, music, etc., unhampered by the considerations of pleasing or displeasing its advertisers, so it was not a wealthy organisation, but it had a wealth of ideas. It had, I think, a great influence on J.A.”.
Her answers on politics were not always exact or accurate. For it was the British Socialist Party, not the SLP or SDP, that claimed Alexander Anderson’s and the family’s interest in the first few decades of the twentieth century. (For a time, Alex Anderson represented Scotland on the BSP national Executive). Mrs Anderson dated her husband’s serious interest in communism as commencing in 1926 in Edinburgh, a period that coincided with the General Strike.
On April 12, 1978 I wrote again, this time about Anderson’s political activities in Australia, particularly any with the Communist Party of Australia in the late 1920s and the Trotskyist movement in the early 1930s. A month later she replied. On intellectual influence, she tellingly wrote:
I cannot tell you how influential Max Eastman and Sidney Hook were. My husband was an original and independent thinker who sought to find out for himself “how things were” – not superficially but thoroughly. In reading these men, he was seeking corroboration for some of the ideas that had formed in his mind – how, why, when or where it is impossible to say – as much as he might be gaining fresh ideas from their works. Even people with whom he disagreed could have had an influence on his thinking! It’s not so simple.
This was a useful caution about naively tracing ‘influences’.
I switched jobs at this point, commencing around June 1978 as Education and Research Officer of the Labor Council of NSW, replacing Bob Carr, who had quit after losing Senate pre-selection in 1977. I considered myself a cold war social democrat. I still had plenty of time to combine work and study. My research had uncovered a lot of interesting material. I had read much of the communist and “Trot.” press in Australia covering the relevant periods and had a good grasp of Anderson’s ideas.
On October 9, 1978 I wrote once more asking some follow-up questions. Mrs Anderson replied a few weeks later remarking that my curiosity was insatiable and that she was intrigued. Hopefully this was mainly because my research efforts had yielded information that demonstrated scholarship and caused her memory to be prodded into thoughtful reflection. She worried if I might be going too much into biographical dead-ends rather than fruitful areas for scholarly consideration, but she very generously offered information. Perhaps she understood that I wanted to follow up every living lead for biographical information that might compliment a more serious critique of Anderson’s works.
I wrote again on February 20, 1979 asking more questions, about ‘J.C. Baillie’, and even references to Anderson in the N.S.W.Investigations Branch files of the 1930s. A month later she again replied, commenting that “I have been hunting among old papers and letters to get as accurate information as possible on the points you raise” – confirming that a lode of material still existed at Turramurra.
She expressed relief that my interests were not merely with biographical detail, saying that: “The task you are undertaking is needing to be done. For when I die (and, as they say, I am now living on borrowed time) there will be few, if any, to give information on the early days and family and other surroundings of John Anderson.”
It was fascinating to discover that Mrs Elizabeth or Eliza Anderson, John’s mother, had once taught in a Socialist Sunday School in Stonehouse. And that she had emended the tempo of one line in “The International” for the illumination of her pupils. Instead of the prosaic “And spurn the dust to win the prize”, she introduced a livier rhythm “And spurn the dust to win the prize”.
Anderson’s interest in Guild Socialism was not as considered as his brother William (1889-1955), who was one of the leading lights of the movement in Scotland and had written various articles espousing Guild philosophy for The New Age journal.
Mrs Anderson ended this letter saying should she find any material whilst tidying away the letters and papers in her possession that she would try to do her best for me.
I wrote again on June 24, 1979 referring to a few unpublished papers that I had hoped had survived in her possession. Mrs Anderson’s reply referred to Jim Baker’s forthcoming book on The Social and Political Philosophy of John Anderson. I also discovered from Doug McCallum that Jim had finished this book which traversed the very areas that I was interested in. His work I read in proofs. It was very good. I became undecided as to whether I should continue my research. By this time my work for the Labor Council had become more demanding. In 1979 John Ducker retired from all his positions in the labour movement and under the new head of the Labor Council, Barrie Unsworth, I was given more things to do, including active political work. I thought that if the Anderson Archives were available then there might be interesting stuff to explore. Gerard Fischer, the university archivist, was always hopeful that Mrs Anderson would allow her and her husband’s papers to be sent on. But nothing seemed to be happening in a hurry. Around the end of 1979, or perhaps soon after, I was in touch with Sandy Anderson (1923-1995). I was convinced that he too would be reluctant to let go of Anderson’s papers. So I thought I would defer my studies and return to them one day after the Anderson papers were deposited with the University of Sydney archives.
But there were some biographical and other loose ends to ask questions about. So, for the last time, on February 1, 1980 I bothered Mrs Anderson with some more questions, including on Matthew Robieson (1890-1919), a philosopher who died very young; he was William Anderson’s contemporary and best friend at university and in the socialist club, and a champion of Guild Socialism. (Years later I was to write a PhD thesis on Robieson – completed at the Australian Defence Force Academy in 2012). I also asked about a cryptic essay by George Davie in Quadrant on ‘John Anderson in Scotland’. Mrs Anderson’s reply came soon after. She remarked that the Davie article was “both confusing and confused”, and very usefully referred to features of Glasgow University life.
I felt that Jim Baker had well covered the historiography of political and social ideas that I was interested in and that there was little of compelling originality left for me to write about. I thought then that after a few years, I would have left the Labor Council. Thereafter I could return to academic life and write on Anderson. In the end, however, I stayed with the Labor Council for 17 years and I have been in business even longer. So I never returned to my discrete research on Anderson. The Anderson papers eventually only became publicly available after Sandy Anderson’s death in 1995. Thereafter, I think in 1996, I contacted the University Solicitor and he in turn reached out to the police when we suspected a ‘friend’ wanted to claim the inheritance and thereby frustrate Sandy’s will that the Anderson Papers be donated to the University and that the family home be sold and proceedings be used to fund Anderson scholarship under the aegis of the University.
I am grateful to Mark Weblin for both retyping and re-ordering the letters and, as the first Anderson scholar, sifting through, cataloguing and archiving the full John Anderson papers now with the University of Sydney. Amongst that material was a folder of John Anderson’s thoughts sketched in the early 1920s on editing Robieson’s writings. This proved helpful to my recent PhD research.
Whilst researching Robieson, I found in my papers the correspondence reproduced here. I am glad that it can now be available to an audience. If this suits the university, the original manuscripts I shall deposit with the University of Sydney.
 See the article: Peter Harris, The Anderson Estate, Quadrant, Vol. 41, No.s 7/8, July/August 1997, pp. 76-80.