The essays in this collection fall into three parts, first; the consolidation of intellectual networks in the twentieth century; second, some characteristics of intellectual movements; and thirdly, intellectuals and the socio-political agenda.
Part I contains Helen Bourke on social scientists from the Great War to the depression, Stephen Alomes on intellectuals as publicists, Jan Clarke on natural scientists and Albert Moran on intellectuals in the media. In the second part A A Phillips gives a personal account of cultural nationalism in the 1940s and 1950s, Gillian Whitlock and Chilla Bulbeck write on the travails of women in professional life and academia, Stephen Gorton sketches the reception of Freud's ideas in this country, Patrick Buckridge discusses various schools of literary criticism and Andrew Wells writes on the historiography of the Old Left.
Part III contains the two must substantial pieces, one from James Walter on the contest between Fabian regulators and supporters of private enterprise immediately after World War 2. and a paper by David Kemp on liberalism and conservatism since 1944. Other contributors in this section are Max Charlesworth on Catholic thinkers, John Docker on 'those halcyon days' when the New Left was young and Dennis Altman on cultural change.
One would expect a collection of this kind to collate and review earlier work on intellectual activity in Australia and to point the way for further investigation. Unfortunately the book is somewhat fragmented in structure and the authors are more concerned with exposition than with charting directions for future work or relating their own interests to some common themes that would provide unity of purpose in the whole volume.
Head's introductory essay sets the scene with an attempt to define the characteristics of intellectuals in general and the special features of intellectual life in Australia. He finally settles for an open-ended approach that accommodates anyone from leading figures to second and third hand dealers in ideas. Walters draws on Gramski's distinction between 'traditional' and 'organic' intellectuals. The former inhabit ivory towers and remain detached from pubic affairs: the latter carry ideas into practice by articulating the spirit and aspirations of classes and interest groups. He rejects the much-quoted remarks by Loveday and Metin that Australian politics is simply a clash of vested interests, devoid of ideological or philosophical content. He does not respond to the challenge of public choice theory which is unfortunate because the central role of the state in colonial affairs from the time of the First Fleet and the sheer bulk of the three tiers of government make Australia into a veritable laboratory for investigating the disruption of public affairs by interest groups.
Two intriguing questions in the history of idea are, first; the reasons for the almost total disappearance of classical liberalism of the 'Old Whig' (Hayek’s term) or 'libertarian' variety during the twentieth century. Second; the reasons for the recent revival of this tradition, not only in the form of economic rationalism, but more significantly in the form of a radical critique of the morality of the welfare state.
The essays by Walter and Kemp shed a good deal of light on the first question. Walter points out that the war provided the incentive for central planning and precipitated a bureaucratic explosion that doubled the size of the federal public service in Australia between 1939 and 1945. "Curtin's reform-oriented ALP government in 1941 caught the imagination of the intelligentsia (who saw it as the vehicle for the new order)". He draws on the autobiography of Coombs, the most senior and influential advisor to Labor and Liberal governments over many years, to show how the new order would be based on central control of the economy, using the insights of Keynes to deliver sustained economic growth with full employment and other social benefits.
It was not only ALP supporters who were captivated by the siren song of Keynes. Much the same happened to the intellectual leaders of the non-Labor forces, chief among them the remarkable mover and shaker, Herbert Gepp, who formed the Institute for Public Affairs and charged C D Kemp with the task of producing a program for it. This work turned out to be a major source of ideas for the new Liberal Party under Robert Menzies (Prime Minister for an unprecedented 15 years).
"By the late 1930s Gepp, like Coombs, had discovered Keynes, and begun to propound a version of neo-Keynesian economic planning. Unlike Coombs, however, he drew the line at anything that looked like collectivism".
The point of Walter's story, which is supported by Kemp's account of the same period, is that the Keynesian synthesis of private ownership and state planning provided a framework of ideas that the social engineers and the business community could share, even while they disagreed on details. This framework included a highly interventionist function for the state, and neglected the microeconomic foundations of productivity. It should be noted that much of the institutional framework had been put in place by the first Federal Government at the turn of the century with tariff protection for industry and central wage fixing. With ascent of Keynesian ideas the slow poison of inflation was injected into the economy which was already debilitated by the wage fixing system and the bipartisan acceptance of tariff protection.
Under these circumstances the revival of classical liberalism, or "radical liberalism" as Kemp calls it, is something of a mystery and perhaps even a miracle. Kemp records many key players and institutions that featured in the revival, including Alf Ratigan of the Industries Assistance Commission, Bert Kelly (the honest local member) and The Centre for Independent Studies. Clearly more work is required to trace the intellectual currents, the books, the groups and the personal linkages that enabled a robust form of liberal thought to survive through the Keynesian dark ages. [Writing some time later, much of this work has been done by John Hyde in a book Dry: In Defence of Economic Freedom, published in 2002].
As to further work on the distribution of ideas, a worthy topic is the ecology of political influence by way of the politicisation of teachers unions at school and tertiary levels, also the politicisation of the administration of education departments and universities. Donald Horne has suggested several other lines of work. He wants to see the kind of approach to cultural studies that can see the soapies and football finals as part of our intellectual life. He also wants a critique of the works of novelists, painters and other artists. He wants someone to say everything (in the context of the dramatic changes in the last 20 years) to provide an overall view of what Australia might become.
Especially welcome would be a companion volume which explores the institutional arrangements, traditions and practices which are conducive to serious scholarship (and those which detract from productive intellectual effort). Among the major references for this endeavour would be Jacques Barzun's The House of Intellect, a volume that is missing from all the lengthy reading lists in "Intellectual Movements".