The Last Intellectuals: Essays on Writers and Politics
by Peter Coleman
Quadrant Books
pp. 326, ISBN 9780980677829

Although Peter Coleman is undoubtedly the grandfather of Australian conservatism, like so many of us he started his adult life as a man of the Left. His latest collection of essays, The Last Intellectuals, contains a sharp, funny and sometimes stern series of meditations on a career spent in the domestic and international culture wars.

He asks: ‘Am I really that raw youth of 17 who in 1946 co-edited with a communist friend a magazine called Left Forum for the communist-dominated Labour Club at Sydney University (and tried to liven it up with jokes)? I have absolutely zero memory of the episode… And am I also that 21-year-old who in 1950 debated the Menzies government’s plan to ban the Communist party with my friend, the late David Stove? By this time I was loudly denouncing both the Communist party and those Liberals who wanted to ban it. I have a better memory of this great affair because I can distantly hear my own voice, however confused.’

The point is, as he says: ‘It takes you a while to sort yourself out.’ Just how long was the subject of a rueful autobiography, Memoirs of a Slow Learner. Coleman’s learning curve encompassed journalism and editing two influential weeklies, the Observer and the Bulletin. After a long stint in the New South Wales Parliament and a brief but memorable ministerial career, he served for a while in the Federal Parliament. For 20 years he also edited Quadrant, Australia’s major conservative monthly.

Perhaps the most significant turning point in the development of his worldview was his involvement with the Congress of Cultural Freedom, a post-war haven for Lefties who’d been mugged by reality and could no longer take the Eastern Bloc’s claims about itself at face value. ‘Its mission,’ he tells us, ‘was to open the eyes of the fellow travellers to the facts of totalitarianism. Its leaders and supporters understood this struggle. They could speak the ideological dialect. They were the Spanish Civil War generation, veterans whose god had failed. They knew the fellow travellers (and non-party communists) intimately because they themselves had come from their ranks. They also knew that the writers and intellectuals they wanted to reach had a hunger for cultural and intellectual freedom — and they did reach them.’

Quadrant was the local wing of CCF activity and Coleman was greatly influenced by its founding editor, James McAuley, who was also the finest poet of his day, a literary scholar and the cultural critic whose caricature of modernist poetry gave us the Ern Malley hoax. Coleman has previously published a literary biography of his mentor, and some of the most moving pieces in the collection are about McAuley. He’s also written memorably about the poet’s collaboration with B.A. Santamaria, the last century’s leading Australian conservative thinker and polemicist. Anyone interested in a shrewd, scrupulous account of the Zeitgeist and intellectual life in this country over the past 60 years by someone close to all the main players will have to consult Coleman’s oeuvre and this latest collection.

Here, for example, is his analysis of the literary metier which McAuley reacted against in the 1950s and which, thanks to political correctness, still largely prevails in academia: ‘One of the principal weaknesses of Australian writers has been a failure to grasp imaginatively the great and evil passion of the 20th century – the totalitarian temptation that produced Auschwitz and the Gulag in the service of ideology. This extraordinary phenomenon has preoccupied the best writers of the world, but few Australians have fathomed it. Some began to explore the evil of Hitler and his national socialism but few were even able to approach its twins, Stalin and communism.’

Of McAuley’s collaboration with Santamaria he says: ‘Together, through all the struggles, victories, defeats, retreats, reflections and reconsiderations, they developed a far- reaching critique of Western civilisation and modernity — the most comprehensive that has yet been heard in this country. McAuley provided the poetry and music and many of the ideas, but it was Santamaria who articulated and expounded their critique, day in day out.’

The fraternal bond between the two can be gauged by some lines from a poem dedicated to Santamaria which Coleman quotes:

‘Despair had closed around me,
Terrors had pressed me low,
You sought me and you found me,
And I will not let you go.’

It’s worth recording that the federal Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, owes a substantial part of his intellectual formation to Santamaria and Coleman, both of whom were major influences on him from the mid-1970s.

Some of the essays first appeared as book reviews, and it’s instructive to watch Coleman sifting other people’s work to tease out preoccupations of his own. When Pierre Ryckmans, the great sinologist, delivered a series of radio lectures, he noted Ryckmans’s scepticism about national culture and the obsession with national identity. ‘All societies are multicultural. Otherwise they die — like Easter Island, which was once populated by the enterprising race that carved and erected those colossal monuments but which, through centuries of isolation and monoculture, atrophied and collapsed — the ultimate paradigm of a national culture.’

As regular readers of his column will know, Coleman is a polymath. Along with the Cold War material and scattered fragments of an apologia pro vita sua, there are pieces on friends as various as Barry Humphries, Malcolm Muggeridge, Paddy McGuinness and the film-maker Bruce Beresford, along with an appreciation of the neglected poetry of Amy Witting and a salute to the formidable Australian philosopher John Passmore. There are also longer reflections on John Milton, Samuel Johnson and John Stuart Mill, which flesh out his thinking on the tensions between liberalism and conservatism. But for conservatives of a philosophical bent, the pièce de resistance will be his essay The Sad and Noble Music of Michael Oakeshott.

Christopher Pearson was founding editor of the Adelaide Review.