OPINION: by Hal G.P. ColebatchNews Weekly
Robert Manne and the Quadrant affair
, October 15, 2011
Robert Manne has written on morality in public life in countless essays. He has written less on his editorship of Quadrant magazine.
Quadrant was founded in 1956, at about the time the Soviet Union crushed the nationalist and anti-communist uprising in Hungary. Its founder was the anti-totalitarian Richard Krygier, ethnically a Polish Jew formerly prominent in the Polish Social Democrat Party. Its first editor was Professor James McAuley, a Catholic poet who was also active in the foundation of the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party (DLP).
The purpose of Quadrant was made quite clear from the beginning, and spelt out in McAuley’s first editorial: to throw down an intellectual challenge to the left’s domination of Australian literary culture.
It would offer a critique of the left from social-democratic and conservative perspectives. In doing this it would also have the function of offering a badly-needed forum for non-left writers and intellectuals. It would provide an alternative to left-controlled magazines such as Meanjin and Overland and the Australian Book Society. (The editor of Meanjin made frantic efforts to stop Quadrant getting help from the Commonwealth Literary Fund).
Quadrant’s writers were a mixed group, having little in common but an opposition to totalitarianism (overwhelmingly, totalitarianism from the left but also from the right — the extreme right never got a look-in). Some were not political at all. Some were members of the Labor Party, and Bill Hayden later made a big contribution to it.
Following McAuley, its long-term editor was Peter Coleman, a former Liberal MP and writer. Robert Manne succeeded Peter Coleman as editor in 1990 with the goodwill and high hopes of all concerned. He had published excellent studies of Wilfred Burchett, of the Petrov and Coombe-Ivanov affairs and other “cold war” topics.
However, it soon became apparent that Quadrant was being taken in a direction none of its founders and well-wishers had foreseen. Someone described it as “shedding its right-wing skin”.
Robert Manne set about filling Quadrant’s pages with varieties of ancient mercantilism or primitive economic nationalism. Manne’s self-confessed lack of knowledge of classical economics was the subject of scornful comments by economists William Coleman and Alf Hagger in the book Exasperating Calculators: The Rage Over Economic Rationalism and the Campaign Against Australian Economists. Economist Professor Heinz Arndt, president of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, was moved to declare, “I could not be more unhappy if the new editor had turned out to be an anti-Semite.”
An inordinate amount of space was given to the work of Manne’s close friend Raimond Gaita (who recently referred to Israel as a “criminal state”).
It is of course an editor’s right to publish whom he chooses, but it seemed to me that much of Gaita’s writing was turgid and unreadable. Gaita sometimes concluded his articles with the lordly: “Next month I shall be writing on…” indicating that, unlike lesser contributors, he had no fear of editorial rejection.
To be fair, Manne did not reject my own submissions, either. He simply failed to acknowledge them, thus effectively removing them from being saleable elsewhere. I had been writing for Quadrant since the late 1960s, and felt that the courtesy of at least a reply to myself — and other contributors — would not have been inappropriate.
These included the review of what I thought to be an excellent book, the author of which was dying of cancer, and which should have been published before he died.
All the other editors of Quadrant I have had dealings with have been punctilious about replying. Further, within the broad limits of Quadrant’s remit, they did not force their own beliefs onto the magazine. Manne’s successor, P.P. McGuinness, for example, was an atheist but did not try to make Quadrant a mouth-piece for atheism.
Though it still published some (it appeared to me a steadily diminishing number) of conservative pieces, it seemed that large parts of the left-wing package-deal of ideas was being imported into Quadrant. All this was contrary to the values and hopes of Krygier, McAuley and Coleman, all of whom had sacrificed a great deal for Quadrant and were motivated by certain anti-left and democratic ideals.
Its board had also made great sacrifices of time, and many writers had contributed to it over the years for a pittance. They did not do so in order to present the left with yet another literary megaphone.
Manne resigned in 1997 following a dispute with Les Murray over an article of mine arguing (in as a light-hearted manner as is possible with this potentially tragic subject) that Manning Clarke’s writings contained anti-Semitism. By that time things had reached such a stage, and the general atmosphere had become in some ways so rancorous, that some long-term supporters of Quadrant were considering boycotting it.
The journals with which Manne has since been associated allow one to make some guess as to what Quadrant would have looked like had he remained editor. The Monthly, for example, under his editorship, soon published a piece on Stalinism by British communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who had justified the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. It was the democratic world’s horrified reaction to this invasion that played such a large part in prompting the setting up of Quadrant.
Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer. His latest novel Time Machine: Troopers is available from News Weekly Books.