Discipline: Political Science
Date of Passing: 04/05/1991
Henry Mayer, one of the true founding fathers of Australian political science and an important firgure in Australian intellecturallife more generally, died on 4 May 1991, following a heart attack. He was 71 years old. He was Professor of Political. Theory at the University of Sydney until his retirement in 1985 and since that date had held visiting appointments at the University of New South Wales and at Macquarie University. He had been a Fellow of ASSA since 1965.
Henry began his Australian career in an appropriately legendary fashion, having been one of the 'enemy aliens' deported from Britain to Australia on HMT Dunera in 1940, a ship which on that occasion carried what must surely have been the most valuable load ever to arrive in this country. Having been born in Germany, he completed his secondary education in England and, after the parenthesis of deportation and internment, obtained his bachelor's and master's degrees in political science at the University of Melbourne. From there he went almost immediately to the Department of Government at the University of Sydney, where he held various positions before becoming Professor of Political Theory in 1970.
He was throughout his life enormously productive. A collection of his publications of all kinds, made by Murray Goot in 1985 when Henry was far from an end, listed more than 700 items. Naturally, they varied in length, quality and importance. For the last twenty-five years of his life he concentrated largely, though by no means entirely, on various aspects of the media and was certainly the principal Australian academic authority in this area. Previously he had concerned himself with a wide range of political theory, on the sense both of political philosophy and of empirical theorising about politics. Throughout, he spoke and wrote profusely about the political issues of his various days and, to an even greater extent, sought to encourage others to deal with virtually every aspect of politics, whether or not it was of acute concern to him. It is fair to say that his interests were too broad and too kaleidoscopic for him to ever to adopt a settled theoretical position. In his earlier years, at Melbourne and perhaps beyond, he was a dissident and critical marxist. Before long, his passion for dissent and criticism overwhelmed his marxism, and this was never replaced by any other clear ideological position. During the 1960s he sponsored a 'group theory of politics' which led to useful outcomes, from his own pen and from others, but which never pretended to be high theory. In this respect, as in many such cases, the title of the chair which he held for so long was not particularly apposite. He was not a tidy man, in appearance or in intellect. But he had much greater qualities than tidiness.
Behind it all there was - to use a term which is not now as popular as in Mayer's earlier days - a deeply rooted sceptical pluralism. He suspected bigness, domination, complacency and even unity when he suspected that it was being used as a cover for these other qualities. This is perhaps as close as we can get to identifying a common theme in his life and work. It applied to his research from electoral studies through 'group theory' to media studies. It led to his wish to see political science as an autonomous but not independent study. And, at a personal level, it led him, like an even more notable figure, to seek to put down the mighty from their seats and to exalt the humble and meek - as long as the latter could be persuaded to take a share in exalting themselves.
His vitality and encyclopaedic knowledge always made him a popular and successful teacher. This was one aspect of his broader role as a prodigious encourager - of his students, of his colleagues near and far and of anyone who had the good sense to listen to him. There must be hundreds of people who have received his execrably-typed notes drawing their attention to subjects which they should deal with and the sources which would help them in the task.
He was at heart an immensely kind and generous man. He could sometimes be rude and destructive but only when he believed he was dealing with the pompous and self-satisfied who should be brought down a peg in their own interests. No doubt he sometimes made mistakes in such matters and wounded some who did not deserve it.
Mayer was one of those who became a force in Australian political science when it had become established but when its rate of growth was unsure. W.Macmahon Ball became only the second professor of the subject in Australia while Mayer was an undergraduate student in Melbourne. In Sydney, to which Henry moved, the discipline had a longer history. Elsewhere in Australia it hardly existed. From the 1950s he was one of the principal sponsors of its development and autonomy. He was a founder of the Australian (now Australasian) Politics Studies Association and for many years the main influence behind its journal Politics (now the Australian Journal of Political Science), for which he worked indefatigably.
Another such contribution was his editing of five successive editions of Australian Politics: A Reader between 1966 and 1980. These comprehensive - occasionally idiosyncratic - collections of new work on very many aspects of Australian politics together comprised perhaps the greatest single written contribution to the development of Australian political science during the period of its consolidation.
By the 1960s the task of establishing political science as a major discipline in its own right had been completed. Characteristically, Henry then turned to subjects which built upon the study of politics but which went beyond or ignored its boundaries - most obviously the study of the media but also others. One example is that in 1973 he was drawing attention to 'Recent Work by Australian Social Psychologists of Interest to Political Scientists'. And at the end of his life, he held the positions of Visiting Professor of Sociology at the University of New South Wales and of Visiting Professor in Mass Communications at Macquarie.
His work on the media, from The Press in Australia in 1964, also continued to the end, when he remained editor of Media Information Australia. It is trite to say that it was the best and most substantial work of this kind in Australia, in that Henry had little sustained competition in this field. It is not at all trite to say that he was a unique figure in Australian social science and, by definition, we shall not look upon his like again.
Email: mayer [at] assa.edu.au