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Higgins, Esmonde Macdonald (1897–1960)

by Michael Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Esmonde Macdonald Higgins (1897-1960), communist publicist and adult educationist, was born on 26 March 1897 at Malvern, Melbourne, second surviving of six children of John Higgins, an accountant from Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Catherine, née McDonald; his elder sister was Janet Gertrude. Dux and prefect at Scotch College, Esmonde ventured into radical idealism through Frederick Sinclaire's Free Religious Fellowship. At the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1918; M.A., 1954) he won many prizes and engaged in the tumultuous debates of 1916-17.

Staunchly opposed to conscription, Higgins enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 19 November 1917, forsaking an honours degree. He served in France with the 6th Field Artillery Brigade from October 1918 and was granted leave in February 1919 to read modern history at Balliol College, Oxford, his studies there being endowed by his uncle Henry Bournes Higgins. At first Higgins enjoyed Oxford but soon abhorred its elitist artificiality. After travelling through the Soviet Union in the summer of 1920, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. He obtained second-class honours in qualifying for his degree in 1921, but never graduated; he found his subsequent work with the Labour Research Department in London more satisfying.

Higgins returned to Australia in August 1924. His intent was to work for the Communist Party of Australia's fledgling 'Research Bureau'. The British communist Harry Pollitt hailed him as a putative Australian Lenin. The bizarre circumstances of Australian communism mocked such notions, yet for years Higgins served the C.P.A. as an office-holder and publicist on the Labour Weekly. Sydney was his usual home, but in 1925-26 he lived in Victoria and Western Australia, and in 1928 he was a delegate to the sixth congress of the Communist International in Moscow. His major interest in the early 1930s was the League Against Imperialism.

Increasingly alienated from Stalinism, Higgins changed his life's course. On 3 January 1935 at the district registrar's office, Randwick, Sydney, he married his longstanding lover Marjorie Josephine Gardner; witty and resilient, 'Joy' had a background far removed from her in-laws' Protestant-bourgeois respectability. In 1936 he secured appointment as a Workers' Educational Association lecturer in northern Tasmania. Thence he wrote comradely letters to Trotskyites, but retained party ties for a time. James Normington Rawling saw such behaviour as confirming Higgins's weakness and even his deceit, yet to friends 'Hig' was a source of intellect and delight.

He continued with W.E.A. work—in the Auckland district, New Zealand (1938-41), and through the University of Sydney's Department of Tutorial Classes, at Newcastle in 1941-45 and in Sydney in 1945-63 (from 1950 as assistant-director). Early in his career his lectures fostered social and political awareness; they later became increasingly academic and apolitical. As a teacher and expositor Higgins was always supreme. He wrote well on 'The Queensland Labour governments, 1915-1929' (his M.A. thesis) and on David Stewart and the W.E.A. (1957). Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died of cancer on Christmas Day 1960 at his Croydon home and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at £1100. In all he did, and failed to do, Higgins told much about his generation.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Highway, Jan 1961, p 9, May 1961, p 32
  • Australian Quarterly, Mar 1961, p 8
  • M. Roe, 'E. M. Higgins: A Marxist in Tasmania 1936-38', Labour History, no 32, May 1977
  • Palmer papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Baracchi papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Normington Rawling papers (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Higgins, Esmonde Macdonald (1897–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/higgins-esmonde-macdonald-10500/text18631, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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