OPINION: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
Robert Manne, the intellectual hero
, August 5, 2006
Leading Australian author and academic Robert Manne has been reviled by the political right for supposedly having switched his allegiance to the political left.Melbourne writer Bill James, however, defends Manne, not only for his courageous opposition to communism during the Cold War, but for remaining consistent with his past principles.
For those over a certain age, it is strange to read Robert Manne feuding in the media with Melbourne Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt.
It is not strange, of course, to find informed and well-meaning people disagreeing over the history of Aboriginal policy in Australia.
On the one hand, there is a consensus that Aborigines have been patronised, mistreated, even murdered in the past.
On the other hand, there are genuine differences over specific issues. Is it legitimate to use terms such as genocide?
How many, if any, Aboriginal children were forcibly separated from their parents? Just how many Aborigines were deliberately killed by white settlers? Was there any connivance on the part of authorities in this anti-Aboriginal violence?
To what extent, if at all, was state and federal Aboriginal policy explicitly racist? How are we to regard the role of missions and missionaries? What about assimilation? Land rights?Bitterness
These and other questions will continue to be debated for the foreseeable future, but, despite the bitterness which divides them in this particular area, Bolt and Manne have a lot in common.
Today, Robert Manne is feted and lionised by the dominant left-wing cultural establishment. Readers of the Sydney Morning Herald
voted him Australia's leading public intellectual.
Many might not be aware, however, that there was a time when he was shunned by the arbiters of fashionable opinion. He was once as much persona non grata
as Andrew Bolt is at present.
From the late 1960s to the early '90s, Manne was notorious for telling the truth about communism. This was the era when any reference to the shortcomings of communism was "refuted" by anti-intellectual, closed-minded "Reds under the bed" jokes.
He was vindicated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there are still one or two on the left who have never forgiven him. (He is in good company; there are still leftists who resent George Orwell for spilling the beans about Stalin!)
Manne opposed the Vietnam War, but he never fell into the trap of so many naïve Western middle-class demonstrators, who romanticised Ho Chi Minh as a simple patriot and land-reformer. Manne recognised him as a Stalinist thug.
After the war, Manne stood up for the boat-people who risked drowning, starvation and pirates to reach freedom. His support for today's boat people is thus consistent with his past principles.
This is in contrast with his new left-wing friends. They are happy to use today's refugees as propaganda fodder to attack the Howard Government, but back in the '70s were vilifying Indo-Chinese asylum-seekers as CIA agents and black-marketeers.
The '70s was also the period when Mao Zedong, history's worst mass murderer, was adulated by many Westerners, including Australians. This number included some who today hold influential positions in academia and politics, despite never having apologised for their past allegiance (a situation which would be intolerable in the case of former Nazi admirers).
Those were the days when no student shared house was complete without its lares et penates
: an icon of the Great Helmsman alongside a portrait of Che Guevara, the neo-Stalinist protégé of Latin American military dictator Fidel Castro.
Meanwhile, in Cambodia, Pol Pot's communist Khmer Rouge were killing a million victims by means of unimaginable atrocities. Manne was in the forefront of exposing these facts, often in the face of ridicule from those who didn't want them to be true.
Even as late as the early '80s, a sentimental attachment to the Soviet Union lingered on.
It went back as far as World War II, and even further back to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, when communism was touted as the only alternative to fascism. This meant that there was a residual unwillingness to criticise even the Brezhnev regime. Those who did, such as Manne, were smeared as McCarthyists.
Evidence of this pro-Soviet sentimentality was the widespread refusal by the Left to condemn the Australian traitor and Stalinist stooge Wilfred Burchett, whom Manne exposed in a devastating and meticulously documented article.
He also wrote about the Petrov affair. The Petrovs were Soviet spies who defected in Australia. Left-wing dogma asserted that the defection had been manipulated by the then Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies to win an election. Manne demonstrated conclusively that this was a baseless conspiracy theory.Intellectual hero
Robert Manne is an intellectual hero. His accomplishments in Australia paralleled what other Cold Warriors (a proud title), such as Robert Conquest, performed on the world stage.
Today, he is basking in the warm regard of writers' festivals, the universities, the ABC, the Fairfax press, the unions, the mainline churches, the non-Coalition parties, the public service, and the world of artists, actors and entertainers. He has come in from the cold.
But he was once in the position that Andrew Bolt is in right now. Manne has experienced what it's like to be an outsider, a gadfly, a maverick, an iconoclast, a prophet speaking truth to the left-wing powers that be.
If some of his current views on Aborigines seem a bit over the top, or if his hyperbolical criticism of the Howard Government has some of us rolling our eyes, then surely we (including Bolt) can afford to cut him a bit of slack.
We don't have to agree with everything he says, but he has earned the right to be listened to. He has paid his dues.
- Bill James is a Melbourne writer.