Last week in the Spectator Peter Coleman commented on a piece by Frank Bongiorno about a collection of essays that Peter Coleman edited 50 years ago. In addition to Coleman who wrote the Introduction the contributors were the historian A G L Shaw, Douglas McCallum on the state of liberty, Max Harris on manners and morals, Robin Boyd on the Australian ugliness, Manning Clark on Faith, Vincent Buckley on intellectuals, A A Phillips (of the cultural cringe) on the schools, James McAuley on art and literature, Robert Hughes on art, K S Inglis on the daily papers, Donald Horne on businessmen, Ronald Taft on migrants, Sol Encel on Power and Hugo Wolfsohn on foreign policy. It is a great shame that Brian Penton, the standout public intellectual of the century was gone because he could have written well on any and all of the above.
Coleman’s Introduction combined a mixture of optimism and wariness of what the future held. He saw signs of maturity in the growing willingness to criticise Australian life frankly and firmly. He was himself at war with the antiquated laws on censorship. But all was not well, far too much was left to government initiatives and Encel’s chapter focussed on the growing centralization of decision-making in Australian political life. The “new maturity” came with unhelpful attachments.
As several conributors point out, Australianism has always had authoritarian undertones. Fidel Castro says his dictarorship is as Cuban as a palm-tree; an Australian dictatorship would readily claim to be as Australian as a gum-tree.
Bongiorno wrote with the wisdom of hindsight:
Australian Civilization, for all of its admirable qualities, sometimes reads like a book based on an understandable series of misapprehensions about the world opening up in the 1960s. Its editor and star-studded cast of authors were able to shine light in this or that dark corner, often with great flair. But the situation at home and abroad was too fluid, too uncertain, to generate the kinds of insights into the direction of Australian society that would survive the earthquakes of the later 1960s and 70s. Australian Civilization is, rather, a product of the almost-forgotten early 1960s – the rational, liberal and measured idealism stimulated by John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, Martin Luther King’s dream of fellowship between the children of slaves and slave-owners, and Harold Macmillan’s “wind of change” blowing through Africa.
Bongiorno pointed out that the winds of change in Australia ended up supporting Whitlam and the new socialism that is entrenched in Canberra and the managerial class (that is not quite the way he put it). In defence, Coleman replied that his collection may have looked further ahead “and waved the flag of liberal resistance to the coming ascendency of the New Class”.
Interesting to note in Bongiorno’s piece that the CIA did not only fund non-left anti-communist magazines like Quadrant but also the leftwing anti-commmunist magazine Dissent. Strange that so little was made of that when the funding issue emerged to create trouble for Encounter and Quadrant.
This is the Introduction to the collection.