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Eugene Kamenka (1928–1994)

by Robert Brown

Eugene Kamenka, historian of social thought, philosopher and critic of ideologies, died at his Canberra home of bone cancer on Wednesday, aged 65. His name and work are known throughout the world wherever those subjects are studied, and as the Professor of the History of Ideas at the Australian National University he contributed greatly both to the academic life of this country and to its public discussion and thought on serious social topics.

Eugene Kamenka, born in 1928, arrived in Sydney from Berlin at the age of nine. His parents were educated Russian Jews, and he spoke German and Russian, but no English. By the time he finished at Sydney Tech High School he was able to come first in English in the NSW Leaving examination and to enter the University of Sydney as a medical student.

He soon transferred to philosophy in John Anderson's department and became one of the band of Andersonians who for several decades exerted so marked an influence in many areas of public life in Australia, advocating as they did freedom of thought, personal enterprise, and the value of open and critical discussion of social, moral, and all other intellectual questions.

After graduating from Sydney, Kamenka went to Israel as a Zionist sympathiser, became Foreign Editor of the Jerusalem Post, and returned to Australia two years later to become a journalist on The Sydney Morning Herald.

In 1955 he began a post-graduate degree at the ANU, interrupted it for two years of lecturing in philosophy at the University of Malaya in Singapore, and then came back to Canberra to finish his PhD and accept his first position at the ANU.

In 1969 he became head of a separate History of Ideas Unit and for the next 25 years worked with great energy to establish it as a centre for the study of the major social, legal, and political ideas of the past two centuries.

He did this by bringing to this country an unfailing stream of the ablest foreign and Australian visitors to attend conferences, give seminars and public lectures, and also by attracting to the unit a considerable number of talented graduate students.

He made the work of the unit known by his own lectures at overseas universities and by attendance at conferences in a great many countries in Europe, North America and Asia. Most importantly, he was such a ready, valuable, and intelligent contributor that participants became eager, often for the first time, to visit Australia.

Kamenka lived several lives simultaneously. For several decades he wrote hundreds of book reviews and articles for the chief Australian newspapers, took part in public debates on TV, gave innumerable talks on radio, gave his time to teach at high schools in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, and was always available to support policies of moderation in Israel and to aid Jewish causes everywhere.

He worked tirelessly for a number of academic societies, domestic and foreign, in which he held office, including the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Academy of Social Sciences. His first book, The Ethical Foundations of Marxism (1962), established his reputation as a scholarly but critical student of Marxism. His later books on the philosophy of Feuerbach and on bureaucracy, his one volume edition of Marx's works, and his editorship of numerous books on revolutionary movements, human rights and legal theory widened his audience.

In later years he believed that with the death of the Soviet Union and the release of Eastern Europe, Marxism was no longer a major social force, and he joined with his wife, Alice Tay, Challis Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Sydney, to lecture and write extensively on social and legal problems in China and South-East Asia.

This was a field in which both of them had long been interested, and as Soviet-led Marxism declined, they foresaw very early the intellectual importance of the new East Asia. It was on these questions that Eugene Kamenka was talking and writing, despite severe physical handicaps, until a few days before his death.

Original publication

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Citation details

Robert Brown, 'Kamenka, Eugene (1928–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 March, 1928
Cologn, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany


19 January, 1994 (aged 65)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (bone)

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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