As soon as the Cold War ended, according to Irving Kristol, the real cold war began. This is, he said, the war against American-style liberalism—the left-liberalism which has ruthlessly corrupted sector after sector of public and private life. He had in mind political correctness, big government, and the network of radical policies for family, school, “gender”, environment, culture and religion. This cold war would be more spiritually engaging than anticommunism had ever been. He envied those young enough to be fighting it.
Kristol wrote as a famous editor, essayist, columnist, former Trotskyist, neo-conservative, and a New York Jewish intellectual of legend. His feel for public life echoed Benjamin Disraeli, who noted: “The persecution of the Jewish race has deprived European society of an important conservative element and added to the destructive party an influential ally.” Like Disraeli, Kristol wanted to detach his country, and the Jews, from “the destructive party”. This is the continuing cold war against American-style liberalism.
In Australia, Robert Manne has an entirely different view of the world. He is, as he tells us on page 1 of his new collection (and he repeats it often), a Jew whose identity has been “profoundly” shaped by the Holocaust. It had murdered his grandparents. Once, when giving a public lecture on the subject, tears choked his voice.
Those of us who have not lived “under the shadow of the Holocaust” keep a decent silence when faced with the anguish of one of “Hitler’s children”, and acknowledge the almost incomprehensible evil of the Holocaust. But this does not explain why Manne’s response to the end of the Cold War was so unlike Kristol’s. Like most of us, Manne was glad to be released from the unavoidable burdens of anticommunism. But he was also strangely shaken and unnerved by an intuition that very soon old friends would become enemies and his enemies friends. He began rethinking all the “fundamental questions” in a period of “intense self-scrutiny” and “passionate public engagement”. Unlike Kristol, Manne was drawn again to what he calls “the left-leaning intelligentsia”.
During the long Cold War against the Soviet Union, he had (he now believed) neglected such great issues as racism, feminism and capitalist alienation. This is no doubt true: he was indeed a late-comer to many of them. But now at last he would respond to them all, especially to Australia’s “legacy of unutterable shame”—our dispossession and genocide of the Aborigines.
In turning back to the Left , he was “coming home”: “I had come full circle”. Hence the title Left Right Left for this selection of almost thirty years of journalism on subjects ranging from communism, culture wars and asylum seekers to Aborigines, Jews and Muslims.
Collections of this kind sometimes fall dead-born from the press. Readers don’t care to rekindle ancient arguments. But some of his themes—immigration, for example—are as lively as ever. The book will also help readers trace what Manne calls “my trajectory” (that is, his political development).
If his “coming home” confused his old conservative friends, it gratified the Left, apart from a few cranks who would not forgive or forget his earlier anticommunism. For Manne had brought to his anticommunist polemics—on the Petrovs, Wilfred Burchett, the Combe–Ivanov case—a sense of the curse of communism, refined by his family experience of Nazism, that was beyond the comprehension of most Australian journalists and academics. They are his best work. (His influential Quadrant essay on Burchett, “He Chose Stalin”, is reprinted in this collection.)
But if the collapse of communism positioned him for a move to the Left, what triggered it? The growth of amoral “economic rationalism” or free trade, he says in his opening chapter, was one factor, although he now candidly admits he made something of a fool of himself, since he knows nothing about economics. (That did not restrain him when editing Quadrant.) A more important influence was the controversy that raged around Helen Demidenko’s novel about the Holocaust, The Hand that Signed the Paper. (His essay “Free Speech, Political Correctness and the Jews” is included here.)
As he read the novel, its nihilism and careless insensitivity to Nazi anti-Semitism were shocking, even abominable. But also shocking to Manne was the claim by some of Demidenko’s supporters that she, like Geoffrey Blainey or Helen Garner, had become a victim of political correctness. Manne himself had once deployed that concept against opponents (see his chapter “On Political Correctness”), but never again! He now saw it as the slogan of dodgy and heartless conservatives. His trajectory moved deeper into the Left.
The story becomes complicated by his editorship of Quadrant, a sub-theme in the book. He had been a frequent contributor to the magazine. Quadrant indeed had created him as a public intellectual. For my part I had recruited him as co-editor in the late 1980s with a view to his taking over. (I had edited the magazine for over twenty years and it was time for a change.) In 1990 the Quadrant circle, with very few dissident voices, welcomed him as editor, hoping he would open its pages to the new issues of the new era following the end of the Cold War.
Their satisfaction did not last long. Manne turned out to be the most illiberal and intolerant editor in the magazine’s history. He began by banning David Stove’s paper on racial antagonisms that had been delivered to the Russellian Society (and later published in its Proceedings). He ended it banning a reasoned reflection by the poet/lawyer
Hal Colebatch on the anti-Semitism he found in Manning Clark’s treatment of such figures as Frank Anstey and P.R. Stephensen.
In the midst of these scandals, loyal supporters fell away one by one. Typical was H.W. Arndt, former editor and economic liberal, alarmed by the disproportionate space Manne gave to economic illiberalism. He resigned from the Board, declaring: “I could not be more unhappy if the new editor had turned out to be an anti-Semite.” The literary editor Les Murray was another who could not work with Manne. But those who had for years done their best to damage or destroy Quadrant were delighted with the new editor. Others began to wonder why Manne had been so eager to edit the magazine in the first place.
These disputes culminated in the furore over “the stolen generations”. Manne’s unwillingness to publish critics of his strongly held views finally compelled the Board (or a majority) to raise doubts about his judgment. This is a moral issue, Manne maintained, with some sanctimony. Compromise, he declared, is not possible. He resigned, and P.P. McGuinness took over as editor. (In fact compromise surely was possible: in Left Right Left, for example, Manne rightly praises Noel Pearson’s Charles Perkins Oration. But it was McGuinness who published the Oration in full in Quadrant, December 2001.)
In the first years of his editorship, McGuinness published over a dozen articles on the “Stolen Generations” and organized a major seminar on it. His basic idea is that the “stolen children” were in most cases rescued children and that it is ridiculous to describe assimilation as genocidal unless you regard all intermarriage as genocide. (Some do.) McGuinness also encouraged criticism of the disastrous policies of welfare dependency and communal land rights that stand in the way of Aboriginal self-modernisation.
But Manne’s sore festered, and infected all his later polemics. In the long essay "In Denial" (reprinted here), he set out to settle some scores. His bête noire was and is McGuinness. Rarely in the history of magazines has a former editor so savaged his successor. In an extraordinary spasm of hate-speech, he charged McGuinness with turning Quadrant into an organ of “denialism in the David Irving mode”, that is, with being a neo-Nazi.
But McGuinness is only one target among many. Peter Howson talks “racist nonsense”, Ken Minogue is “supercilious”, Ron Brunton “mean-spirited”, Piers Akerman “vicious”, Christopher Pearson “pompous”, Roger Sandall “shallow and morally shabby”, Douglas Meagher QC “bombastic”, and Keith Windschuttle “sinister”.
In another chapter, he repeats his preposterous charge that Windschuttle had once been “a Pol Pot enthusiast”, with the innuendo that Windschuttle had supported Pol Pot’s holocaust.
One Quadrant dispute he does not mention is the David Stove affair noted above, although in a recent ABC interview with Terry Lane he presented it as a defining moment. As he told his story to Lane, Stove submitted an article on “the intellectual inferiority of women”. It was, Manne said, a “shoddy” thing which he, as co-editor, would have been “ashamed’ to publish. Nothing “fruitful” could come from even discussing it. The only one who wanted to publish it, in Manne’s fantasy, was me. (I am, in his view, a “rancorous” character.) Manne says he saw this as a gravely important test case.
This is an extraordinary farrago of nonsense. Stove never submitted to Quadrant anything on the intellectual capacity of women, shoddy or whatever. Neither Manne nor I had any occasion to take an editorial view of any such article, let alone publish it, and Manne had no occasion to fear being shamed by it. (A paper to which Manne may have been referring appeared in the English journal Philosophy in 1994. It was called “The Subjection of John Stuart Mill: The Intellectual Capacity of Women”. It provoked a lively debate among philosophers, including Jenny Teichman.)
Stove had been for years a contributor to Quadrant and to similar magazines around the world including Commentary and Encounter). He was one of Australia’s best essayists and many of his essays have been collected in American and British as well as Australian editions.He was an internationally respected philosopher who brought prestige to his often provincial University of Sydney. Anything he wrote was worth reading, even when you rejected his arguments.
What had happened was that Stove had sent Quadrant an examination of race and racism called “Racial and Other Antagonisms”. It discussed race prejudice, its resistance to education, and the circumstances in which it may be rational. It criticised radical multiculturalism and supported immigration policies that preserve Western norms and traditions against what he called “suicide by immigration”. It was, to say the least, prescient.
In my view it was too dogmatic and pessimistic, but it was obviously suitable for a journal of ideas and debate like Quadrant—which had, incidentally, always opposed racism, supported “soft” or liberal multiculturalism, and been broadly philosemitic. (Readers may judge for themselves by looking it up in Stove’s collection, Cricket versus Republicanism and other Essays, Quakers Hill Press.) In a letter to me at the time Stove raised doubts as to “whether its publication would be in the public interest”. I thought it would be irresponsible and shameful not to publish it—and of course criticisms of it.
But Manne told me (as he had already told me more than once) that his grandparents had been murdered by the Nazis, and that as a Jew he could not possibly agree to publishing it. I normally defer to such feelings. But to use the Holocaust to deny publication to a prophetic essay that among other things ridiculed Nazi ideas would, it seemed to me, be an unctuous treason of the clerks. Without consulting me, Manne complained to the Board.
Thereupon Stove withdrew the article and placed it in an English journal. He did not write for Quadrant again.
I had already given my resignation and left soon after this sad fiasco with heavy heart. The magazine was clearly going to abandon its hard-fought, freethinking liberalism for the applause of the philistine “left-leaning intelligentsia” who had attacked it from its first issue. Worse, it was going to suppress the sort of lively debate on which the magazine’s reputation depended. It was a triumph of Pecksniffery. It lasted seven long years.
In those years (and since), Manne wrote with passion about Australian and Aboriginal history. He denounced assimilationism and supported the call for an Apology. But he was silent about programs of health, education and welfare. He prefers moral swagger to “practical reconciliation”. (A late exception—in November 2001—is his acknowledgment, reprinted here, of the importance of Noel Pearson’s campaign against Aboriginal alcoholism and welfare dependency.)
His chapters on asylum seekers are in a similar denunciatory style. He condemns the dreadful blunders of the immigration authorities. He is contemptuous of mainstream political parties for their opposition to people smugglers. (He does not discuss what happens to a country that neglects border protection.) It may have strengthened his hand if he had once recognised that Australia is still, as always, one of the world’s havens for refugees. But he remains strong on sanctimony and weaker on sense.
There are thirty-eight chapters in the book and many deal with aspects of his trajectory not touched on here. Two of his early Quadrant pieces attacking “the leftleaning intelligentsia”—“A Case for Censorship” against pornography, and “Australia and the Gulf” supporting the first Gulf War—are still readable. Elsewhere he tells us how deeply he admires Paul Keating (a charming and noble visionary) and how he regrets having voted against him in the 1996 election when John Howard became Prime Minister (cunning, no vision, ill at ease with the world).
The selection does not include any of his media criticism, especially of the ABC or the Fairfax press—for example, his “David and Goliath” (Quadrant, 1984) documenting the leftist bias of Australian journalists in their coverage of the Combe–Ivanov affair. (At least he has not included here his account of how he laughed until the tears rolled down his cheeks at the folksy parade through Sydney during the Federation celebrations—the only part of the hoopla that I enjoyed and an antidote to the politically correct homilies inflicted on us that night at Centennial Park.)
But Manne may not have completed his trajectory. The opening chapter, a variation on the book’s title, is “Left, Right, Left …” with three dots. The improbable hint is that one day the trajectory may turn Right again! He ends his book thanking god he is not as other men, especially those American neo-conservatives, mainly Jews, who got us into the Iraqi mess. Many agree with his criticism of US policy (“I have never witnessed a more foolish adventure”) but he has no advice on how to get out of it and no criticism of those of us who believe that the only option is to try to win. His self-image is always the Virtuous Outsider.
A poll of selected Sydney Morning Herald readers found Manne to be Australia’s leading public intellectual. He is therefore a man of influence and power. But as Rudyard Kipling famously reminded Lord Beaverbrook, power without responsibility is an abuse. We look for a little more responsibility and less sanctimony.
Close thy Manne! Open thy Kristol!
Left, Right, Left: Political Essays 1977–2005, by Robert Manne;
Black Inc, 2005, $34.95.
QUADRANT SEPTEMBER 2005