THE LAST INTELLECTUALS
Essays on writers and politics
by Peter Coleman
Quadrant Books, 320pp.
Reviewed: 15 August, 2010
Historians may debate how much anti-communist poets and novelists in Australia really contributed to the collapse of global communism. Readers may approach this miscellany of Peter Coleman’s later essays with assumptions based on Coleman’s long public life as an energetic anti-communist, political conservative and Liberal politician, now father-in-law to Peter Costello.
I expected a coherent political survey of Coleman’s engagement in the Australian front of the Cold War. Indeed, the flyleaf suggests that the book chronicles how “journalists, essayists, poets, novelists and editors defended cultural freedom and contributed to the collapse of communism”. The collection is both less, and more, than that.
Historians may debate how much anti-communist poets and novelists in Australia really contributed to the collapse of global communism. Coleman himself makes no exaggerated claims. A number of the essays do look back, with wry good humour rather than bombast, on the history of the international Congress for Cultural Freedom and its Australian affiliate, the Association for Cultural Freedom, which launched Quadrant magazine and published it for twenty years.
Peter Coleman (born 1928) and his cohort are of an untagged generation: just too young to have served in World War II, and mostly too mature to be swept up in the various Baby Boomer “liberations” of the late 1960s and beyond. Their formative years saw the Depression, World War II, the collapse of European empires and the incipience of a bi-polar Cold War between communist and anti-communist states.
For the intellectually and socially engaged of this cohort, an ideological position, Left or Right, was inescapable but not immutable. Many like Coleman started on the Left and later moved to the Right, while some others started on the Right and moved toward the Left. Culture and propaganda politics were a “front” in the Cold War, with competing factions sponsored globally, to different degrees, by the major protagonists in Moscow and Washington, and in Australia by powerful institutions such as communist-controlled trade unions, business lobbies or the Catholic Church.
Coleman’s conservatism was of the Menzian, liberal kind rather than the Tory, Howard kind. Though fiercely loyal to friends in the Quadrant circle such as the poet James McAuley, he sees himself as an apostle of the values of classical liberalism rather than an adherent to any modern ideology. He leaves current culture and history wars, on the whole, to others.
While editor of The Bulletin, Coleman fell out with Kerry Packer in 1966 over his too-cerebral adherence to The Bulletin’s tradition of Australian cultural introspection and literary promotion. Packer wanted, and got, a clone of the American Newsweek. Coleman was soon approached by McAuley to edit Quadrant, then a struggling bi-monthly which Coleman describes as having “grown out of a post-war no-man’s-land of frustrated intellectuals, ideological acrobats, disillusioned Marxists, anticommunist Liberals, premature neo-conservatives, demi-vierges of Christianity … the flotsam and jetsam of the Age of Ideology”.
He found the milieu irresistible and took it on for most of the next twenty years. Its founder Richard Krygier died in 1986 , and Quadrant’s publishing body, the Sydney-based Association for Cultural Freedom, closed down. Control passed to a new board of “Melbourne company directors”, and Coleman retired from editorship.
Coleman has remained a loyal contributor. Most of these essays were published in Quadrant from 1991 to 2009, when Coleman had passed his eightieth birthday and sixty years in the world of letters. There is no introduction or foreword to offer an organizing principle or purpose to the collection, and it is not stated whether chapters are excerpts or full reprints of the original published essays. Headings to the four non-chronological Parts of the anthology did not help this reader to discern much continuity between essays. Like many collections of journalism, each piece needs to stand alone. Generally, they do.
Fortunately, Coleman writes with great clarity, blessed brevity and well-calibrated force. Most of the fifty-two pieces are only a few pages long and easily hold attention. Reminiscences of shenanigans of the cultural Cold War may intrigue younger generations as well as entertaining rusted-on Quadrant loyalists. Some of his incisive, occasionally combative reviews of other people’s books may provide interesting footnotes for later scholars.
Coleman is really at his best not as a combatant but as a ponderer. A fine, self-critical piece describes his disillusionment with parliamentary politics, after stints as Liberal leader in the NSW parliament and as a Federal member for Wentworth in the last days of the Fraser government. This must have made interesting reading for son-in-law Peter Costello at critical junctures in his own parliamentary career. Coleman asserts commitment to market liberalism but offers no direct comment whatsoever on the Liberal Party since Fraser.
Some of his most interesting pondering takes the form of highly readable short essays on various thinkers influential on the liberal tradition, from John Milton and John Stuart Mill to Alfred Deakin and Michael Oakeshott. He finds philosophers more useful than economists as guides to good government. One may infer that he is one of many “wet” but loyal Liberals privately appalled by philistine neo-conservative influence on the modern Liberal Party, but with nowhere else to go.
This book’s title is regrettable and unexplained – the phrase “last intellectuals” does not appear anywhere in the book and there is no hint as to who such people might be. Why dismiss every current and future thinker, however misguided one may consider some of them to be? I put it down to a spasm of marketing hype, hopefully not the author’s.
Coleman’s cultural conservatism is clear and consistent. Along with McAuley, he warred for decades against the local exponents of modernism in literature and the arts (notably Sidney Nolan), though always committed to freedom of expression. He seems to value poetry, especially James MacAuley’s, for its effectiveness in communicating approved values, rather than as art for art’s sake. Post-modernism is far beyond the pale for its cultural and moral relativism, and for its fatal distraction of academia from lasting cultural values. He holds to an enquiring Christian faith. He sees no point in Australian republicanism.
Contemporary readers who do not share Coleman’s values may pigeonhole his essays as old-fashioned. This would be a mistake. He is an interesting independent thinker and an excellent writer, from whom any who share his commitment to enquiry may gain entertainment, knowledge and stimulation.
Richard Thwaites recalls the cultural Cold War as a background of distant artillery to his baby-boomer youth.