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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Rhodes Henry Hart (1954–2020)

by Humphrey McQueen

Rhodes [Hart] was a name long before he was a face — or should I say ‘a beard’? Clues accumulated in the years before we met. Rhodes owned the Toowong house where Jim Sharp lived. He had worked in CSIRO with Ross. He lived in Toowoomba. He was an astronomer and geo-physicist.

As one might expect, when we did meet it was one summer evening on Ross’s back verandah, I reckon seven years back. Friends and comrades had gathered to talk about the subterranean forces that would affect working people in the coming decade. As is the way with such discussions, most of us could contribute only what we had been thinking. It was against that trend that Rhodes stood out. ‘Stood out’ is not right. Rather, he distinguished himself through the quality of mind apparent behind how he framed his contribution. Far from posing a rhetorical question, he invited us to join him in delving deeper into why it was that our starting points were no longer taken as given in the unions: Jim’s insistence that ‘there can be no such thing as a fair day’s pay’; or ‘peace is union business.’

In the following years, Rhodes never let go of that problem: how to make our commitment to social justice effective? He did more than his share of supporting individuals in need, emotionally and materially, but knew how terrible a power stood between good deeds and social equality.

He allied passion for principles to precision from his life’s work as a scientist. Ideas had to be tested. As an astronomer, he knew how little even his fellow professionals understood about the immensities they studied. The old joke that cosmologists were ‘frequently in error but never in doubt’ never applied to him. He never doubted that the earth goes around the sun. What goes on around under its corona remains to be seen. The last attachments I emailed via Ross for Rhodes’s comment were the reports in Nature (December 2, 2019) on the Parker Solar Probe.

Rhodes did stand out in one way. Everyone else in the Brisbane circles saw ourselves as part of the Marxist tradition. Rhodes was not against Marx, and in no sense anti-communist. But try as Jim might, he could never get Rhodes to open Capital.

As was always the case with Rhodes, none of the usual reasons applied. That Capital is 3,000 pages long and, as Marx warns: ‘There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of is steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.’ Both features were more likely to appeal than to repel. It was a suspicion common among scientists that kept him apart: anything more than ten years old will have been overtaken by changes in the real world and by advances in our understanding of it. Capital had been written in the 1860s. Quod erat demonstrandum.

How is it then that Rhodes presents a paper at the Brisbane conference for the 150th anniversary of volume one in May 2017? A concatenation of causes coincides on Ross’s back verandah during the tail of a cyclone when the three of us take turns to read out paragraphs from the final chapter of that volume. To his surprise, its arguments circle around the foundation of South Australia. More than that delight, Marx speaks to him across time about how the exploitation of labour and the plunder of nature are built into the expansion of capital.

Rhodes is hooked. Where he drags the line and sinker is pure Rhodes. Here, I dare do no other than quote a few of the opening lines from his 27,000-word account of why, as his heading has it, ‘Marx's Labour Theory of Value Still Good Value’:

Marx's labour theory of value is a key component of his incisive analysis of how capitalism functions, showing in particular how it exploits workers and their communities. 

[it] is a logically coherent, scientific theory, which reasonably can be tested empirically against the data for its explanatory power and usefulness to the working class.

Rhodes brought his mastery of mathematics to vanquish

an orthodoxy [which] had tailored its account of capitalism to meet the ideological needs of the ruling 0.01%, not to scientifically understand capitalism.

At the same time, he gives sharp lessons to the ‘many, perhaps most of the academics identifying as Marxist [who] had come to distrust or discount Marx's theory of value.’

Last July, he, Ross, Peter Curtis and I spent two days on Ross’s verandah working — word by word — through the 27,000-words. Rhodes welcomed every suggestion as to how to make his workings clearer and accessible. We came away with a plan to present his contribution in three forms. First, a three-page synopsis of the argument and its centrality for wage-slaves struggling against the rule of capital; a second document is the full-length presentation but with the equations as an Appendix so that those of us who are maths shy might still have access to his detailed reasoning; the third version will be the same but with the algebra in place.

We came close to concluding those three reworkings. Whatever Ross circulates now will be the lesser for not having Rhodes to advise us — as our lives are diminished by his absence.

Original publication

Citation details

Humphrey McQueen, 'Hart, Rhodes Henry (1954–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hart-rhodes-henry-32644/text40523, accessed 20 May 2024.

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

1954

Death

12 February, 2020 (aged ~ 66)
Queensland, Australia

Occupation