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Thomas Henry (Harry) Rigby (1925–2011)

by Leslie Holmes

Harry Rigby, 1987

Harry Rigby, 1987

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-1053

Professor Emeritus Harry Rigby passed away in Canberra on 21 March 2011, aged 85. He was born into a working-class family in Coburg in Melbourne’s northern suburbs in April 1925, attended school (and met his future wife, Norma, there), and then joined the 2nd AIF (Australian Imperial Force— the volunteer force of the Australian Army during WWII) in 1942, serving in PNG and Morotai (Indonesia). After the war, he enrolled at the University of Melbourne; initially, this was for a pass degree in French and Dutch, but Harry ended up taking honours in Russian and political science. He then proceeded to write his research master’s thesis on ‘The Soviet View of Southeast Asia’, making good use of both his Russian and his wartime knowledge of Southeast Asia. Having completed his MA in 1951, Harry secured a University of Melbourne traveling scholarship. This took him to the UK, where he enrolled for a PhD at the University of London, under the supervisions of Professors William Robson and Hugh Seton Watson. He completed his PhD in 1954—in the shortest possible time—and returned to Australia, where he took up a teaching post in Russian studies at Canberra University College. Shortly afterwards, the LSE’s Professor Leonard Schapiro, whom Harry had got to know in London, visited Australia and invited Harry to participate in a major research project on the USSR. As part of this project, Harry spent time working in the Foreign Office’s Research Department and then in the British Embassy in Moscow (1956–57). This substantially improved his knowledge of the Russian language and provided him with first-hand knowledge and experience of the Soviet system.

Harry returned to Australia, and to his post at Canberra University College, at the end of 1958. He moved to the ANU in 1963, taking up a political science research professorship in the newly established Research School of Social Sciences. He was to spend the rest of his academic career at the ANU. Although he formally retired in 1990, he continued to conduct research into Russian and (now post-) communist politics, principally in the context of the University’s Transition of Communist Systems Project. He was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 1971.

It would be no exaggeration to describe Harry as the doyen of Soviet and Communist studies in Australia. In 1975, he co-founded (and was the first President of) what is now known as the Australasian Association for Communist and Post-Communist Studies, which is alive and well; it remains a thriving testimony to his efforts. This organisation was originally established as the Australasian Association for the Study of Socialist Countries (AASSC), and in its early days was formally part of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS).

But Harry’s influence on the profession was by no means limited to AASSC. He acted as doctoral supervisor to a number of young scholars—such as Stephen Fortescue and Mark Higgie (both co-supervised by Robert ‘Bob’ Miller)—who by now have themselves become the ‘older generation’ of Australian and even international (e.g. Shugo Minagawa) specialists on the USSR, Russia, and communist and post-communist states.

I first came across Harry’s work as a postgraduate at Essex University in the early 1970s. I was studying for an MA in Soviet government and politics, and one day asked one of my two lecturers in Soviet politics whom he considered to be the leading experts in the world; he named three—an American, a Brit … and Harry Rigby. Professor Rigby’s work reflected a rare combination in political science—both a real eye for detail and an ability to locate his often-painstaking research into general theories of politics. He coined terms that became standard descriptors for the Soviet and similar systems—notably the mono-organisational society (or mono-organisational socialism, as he preferred to call it in his later works) and goal-rational legitimation. His work included some of the most detailed and insightful work we have on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, communist political clientelism and elite politics more generally, and legitimacy.

Already in his first major book—Communist Party Membership in the USSR, 1917–1967 (1968)—Harry’s lifelong interest in the interaction between formal institutional politics and informal personalist (clientelist) politics was evident. He developed this theme in numerous subsequent works (e.g. Political Elites in the USSR: Central Leaders and Local Cadres from Lenin to Gorbachev, 1990), and stimulated others to research the theme in communist countries other than the USSR (see, for instance, the collection he co-edited with Bohdan Harasymiw, Leadership Selection and Patron Client Relations in the USSR and Yugoslavia, 1983).

Harry’s interest in legitimation dated from his student days when he was particularly attracted to the work of Max Weber. But as time went on and communist systems became less revolutionary and more bureaucratic, Harry came to realise that none of Weber’s three ideal types of legitimacy—traditional, charismatic and legal-rational—was appropriate to describe contemporary communist systems. Rather, communist elites sought to legitimise themselves by claiming to be the vanguard that would lead the rest of the population to the end-goal of communism. This led Harry to argue that the dominant mode of legitimation in most communist states was now ‘goal-rational’. This term has remained a standard way of describing the way in which elites in late communism sought to justify their rule. It appears in various of his works, but arguably his best-known exposition is in the book he co-edited with Ferenc Fehér that was soon recognised as the seminal collection on communist legitimation: Political Legitimation in Communist States (1982).

A notable aspect of Harry Rigby’s scholarship was that he was always prepared to recognise the changing landscape of communism. Again, one could cite many examples. But among the best would be one of his last books, The Changing Soviet System (1990). Moreover, despite his criticisms of the Soviet system, he often emphasised that his shorthand way of describing it (mono-organisational socialism) was to be clearly distinguished from the blunter—less nuanced—concept of totalitarianism.

Although the Communist Party was Harry’s primary research focus, his interest in Soviet institutions generally meant that he also analysed the state. In this context, mention must be made of his beautifully researched book on the first Soviet ‘cabinet’, Lenin’s Government: Sovnarkom 1917–1922 (1979).

Harry was a religious man (though he became so only in full adulthood), and in many ways—despite his readiness to acknowledge change in communist systems—rather conservative in his views. At the same time, he had a very dry and occasionally mischievous sense of humour. Those meeting him for the first time could easily be misled by his mild manner, his obvious patience and his somewhat hesitant way of speaking; he was in fact much firmer in his convictions than many realised and could be quite stubborn in defending these. But he was always polite (and usually right!), even when he strongly disagreed with someone; he invariably maintained his dignity and calm. He was also a very kind person; the hospitality he and Norma showed others—from postgraduates to leading international scholars visiting Australia—was legendary. At the risk of sounding clichéd, Harry was truly a gentleman and a scholar. Harry Rigby leaves behind his lifelong love, Norma, and two children, Richard and Kate. He will be sorely missed by family, friends, colleagues and the international scholarly community.

* Originally published in the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia Annual Report 2011.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Leslie Holmes, 'Rigby, Thomas Henry (Harry) (1925–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 September 2023.

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