BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
Thinker, writer and activist for freedom
, April 30, 2011
THE LAST INTELLECTUALS:
Essays on Writers and Politics
by Peter Coleman
(Sydney: Quadrant Books)
Hardcover: 324 pages
Reviewed by John Barich
Peter Coleman is one of Australia’s authentic public intellectuals. A veteran of the Cold War, he engaged in some of the most momentous ideological battles of the 20th century. A distinguished man of letters, he was editor at various times of Australia’s weekly Bulletin and the conservative monthly journal Quadrant. A Liberal politician, he served in the parliament of New South Wales, becoming Opposition leader, but missing out on becoming premier. He was later elected to federal parliament. His daughter Tanya married prominent Liberal figure Peter Costello.
The Last Intellectualsis a collection of Coleman’s essays — 42 of them in all — which appeared over a number of years in Quadrant and other journals.
As a young man, Peter Coleman attended the momentous Congress for Cultural Freedom, held in Berlin in 1950, when prominent Western social democrat intellectuals (many of them ex-communist) banded together to champion the values of freedom against communist totalitarianism.
This was in the early years of the Cold War, when Stalin’s Soviet Union was consolidating its police-state rule over much of Central and Eastern Europe.
A short time before the congress, the Soviet Union had tried to blockade Western road and rail access to Berlin. The governments of the United States, Britain and the Commonwealth nations responded by organising the famous Berlin Airlift to fly in food to sustain the besieged people.
Coleman recalls how, at the 1950 Berlin congress, the famous Hungarian-born author Arthur Koestler climbed onto a podium and dramatically proclaimed, “Freedom has taken the offensive!” Coleman describes Koestler as “the energising spirit” of the Berlin congress.
The congress spawned a number of distinguished publications across the free world, including the Anglo-American magazine Encounter and, of course, Australia’s own Quadrant, which, unlike Encounter (which folded up at the end of the Cold War), is still going.
For years, Coleman was a prominent member of the Australian Congress for Cultural Freedom, which published Quadrant. Controversy erupted four decades ago when its parent body, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) was accused of accepting funds from America’s CIA.
In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, Coleman published his book, The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe. He concluded that the CCF “embodied more than any other movement the moral dimension of the Cold War. It was a historic success.”
However, the CCF’s work, invaluable though it was, operated solely in the battle of ideas.
Overlooked in Coleman’s book is the no less crucial battle that was waged by B.A. Santamaria’s Movement among rank-and-file Australian workers in its titanic struggle to wrest control of major trade unions from the grip of Australia’s Moscow-aligned Communist Party. Coleman could also have said more about the important role played by the Democratic Labor Party, after the 1955 Labor Split, in keeping a left-wing Labor Party out of office.
These are historical facts attested by former communist Mark Aarons in his book The Family File (2010) and by former NSW premier Bob Carr. Last year, Carr admitted: “Still something of a Labor romantic, I find it painful to squeeze this out, but it strikes me the DLP indictment of the ramshackle Labor Party led by H.V. Evatt and Arthur Calwell was mostly right.”
Coleman, however, does mention Santamaria favourably in one of his essays when he refers to the book, edited by Patrick Morgan, Your Most Obedient Servant: B.A. Santamaria Selected Letters, 1938-1996. However, Coleman does not refer to Morgan’s sequel compilation, B.A. Santamaria Selected Letters: Running the Show: Selected Documents, 1939-1996.
Coleman in his book is generous with praise of numerous other individuals prominent in the struggle to overthrow Communism.
Prominent among them is, of course, Authur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon and contributor to The God that Failed (1949), a famous collection of essays by disillusioned ex-communists.
Another contributor to The God That Failed was Ignazio Silone, who, together with Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, had founded the PCI (Italian Communist Party) in the 1920s. After his break with communism, Silone wrote the Abruzzo Trilogy, which Coleman describes as “still amongst the greatest novels of the totalitarian years”. Coleman considers Silone the Italian Solzhenitsyn.
English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge’s factually-based novel Winter in Moscow (1934) is compared favourably with the mendacious “eyewitness junk” from Australian communist/fellow-traveller authors Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Real Russia (1934), Frank Hardy’s Journey into the Future (1952) and Manning Clark’s Meeting Soviet Man (1960).
Coleman recounts his visit to the grave of Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago, in Peredelkino, just southwest of Moscow, and praises George Orwell’s anti-totalitarian masterpieces Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
On many occasions, Coleman mentions Australian poet and one-time Quadrant editor James McAuley, whom B.A. Santamaria used to describe as “my closest friend”. In 1980, Coleman wrote a perceptive study, The Heart of James McAuley: Life and Work of the Australian Poet. Coleman is especially fascinated by McAuley’s epic poem Captain Quiros (1964), and would doubtless be pleased with the enormous tapestry, which hangs in Australia House in London, depicting the great Portuguese navigator’s quest, in the early 1600s, for Terra Australis, the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit.
Other distinguished figures mentioned by Coleman include Quadrant publisher Richard Krygier; political scientist Frank Knopfelmacher; ANU history lecturer Geoffrey Fairbairn; military strategist (with experience in Vietnam as an intelligence officer) Robert O’Neill; historian Patrick Morgan; ANU economics professor Heinz Arndt; Canberra Times and Bulletin journalist Peter Samuel; Perth author and lawyer Hal Colebatch; philosopher Lachlan Chipman; and Gabriel Moens, currently professor of law at WA’s Murdoch University.
Coleman makes special mention of Belgian-born Australian sinologist and essayist Pierre Ryckmans (aka Simon Leys), who, in 1978, was guest editor of a special issue of Quadrant on China — “the best selling issue of the magazine in its forty years”, according to Coleman. In 1996, Ryckmans delivered the prestigious ABC Boyer Lectures.
Coleman gives a humorous aside about one of his successors as Quadrant editor, the late financial journalist P.P. “Paddy” McGuinness (who once addressed the Council for the National Interest, a group established by B.A. Santamaria, Sir Arvi Parbo and Sir Charles Court to address fundamental issues facing Australia).
McGuinness was a Jesuit-educated former Catholic who claimed no longer to believe in God. Coleman wrote him “A letter to the editor from God”, which concluded with the reassuring words: “I am not without hope. You are after all an old Riverview boy. I remain, As always, God.”
Coleman’s take on Australia’s debates over the republic and changing the flag is that neither of these changes will do anything “to settle Australia’s malaise”. He decries the “years of multiculturalism homiletics” which, he says, became an official campaign to present the old Australia as contemptible and its people, quasi-totalitarian racists.
In 2008, Coleman analysed the state of the then opposition NSW Liberal Party, which has recently resurrected itself and formed a new government.
In the course of that commentary, Coleman concluded that Hilaire Belloc’s classic, The Servile State (1912) brilliantly anticipated George Orwell’s futuristic nightmare, Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949).
Coleman includes in his essay collection a number of non-ideological pieces. He praises the myriad contributions to Australia of “The Jewish Exiles”, who include the groundbreaking immunologist Sir Gustav Nossal (who, as a boy, was educated at St Aloysius’ College, one of Sydney’s two main Jesuit schools).
In accepting an honorary degree in 2008 from the University of Sydney, Coleman said that fundamental to his philosophy of life was “the love of a man and a woman, the love of inquiry and truth, the love of God”.