Is Peter Coleman our most productive public intellectual?

I don’t think that Peter Coleman was even on the list when Robert Manne was voted our Number One public intellectual. However when you have a look at PC’s track record over a period of half a century it is very impressive. Robert Manne is not in the same class, certainly not when you contemplate his post-Quadrant career.

He has played many roles: editor of magazines and books, journalist, elected Parliamentary representative, writer of memoires and biographies (his own, Barry Mackenzie, whoops, I mean Barry Humphries, Bruce Beresford and James McAuley),  and a prolific reviewer and commentator.

The books. The list on Wikipedia is very incomplete.

The latest, a rich and varied collection of essays and reviews.

1974 (reprinted in 2000) Obscenity, blasphemy, sedition: censorship in Australia. Brisbane: Jacaranda Press. 211 pages. 

1978 with Les Tanner  Cartoons of Australian history. West Melbourne: Thomas Nelson.

1980 (reprinted recently) The heart of James McAuley: life and work of the Australian poet. Sydney: Wildcat Press. 132 pages.  

1984 Memoirs of a slow learner. Pymble: Angus and Robertson. 166 pages.

1989 The Liberal Conspiracy. The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe. New York: The Free Press (Macmillan). 333 pages. 

2008 With Peter Costello  The Costello Memoirs. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. 400 pages.

More of his books and editorial contributions are listed here. Such as:

The collection of essays on Australian Civilisation which he edited (the introduction which he wrote was on line but the link is now dead).

His biography of Barry Humphries. Chapter 1 and Chapter 20 on line in the Rathouse.

The biography of Bruce Beresford Instincts of the Heart, 1993.

The recent biography of Heinz Arndt.

Editor of a collection of “incorrect essays” by unfashionable thinkers.

Editor of Quadrant for many years, plus editorial roles with The Bulletin and other periodicals.

The liberal reformer.

His outsanding work in this field is his critical history of censorship in Australia, demonstrating that he is by no means a conservative of the kind piloried by Hayek, but a true classical liberal. Duffy and Snelgrove reprinted the book in modern times.

This is a rerelease of Peter Coleman’s classic account of the various efforts throughout history to censor the written word in Australia. It runs from 1788 to the early 1960s, when the fight against censorship was largely won. It focuses on a series of fascinating characters and exciting fights over publications dealing with sex, religion and politics.

Duffy & Snellgrove are reissuing this book because of its entertainment value (due to Coleman’s wonderfully light but effective style, and the intrinsic interest of its subject matter), its importance as a work of popular history, and its new relevance at a time when there are increasing attempts to censor the Internet. The book contains a new introduction by the author, and a cover illustration from George Molnar.

When it first appeared the Rhodes Scholar and dag Ross Campbell wrote in The Tele “Australia used to be as famous for her book-banning as her cricket. Her achievements in that field deserve to be recorded, and Peter Coleman has done so in this notable book. It is a Wisden of banning.”

 Summing up

In sporting terms Coleman was probably never the best on the field, or the winner of medals at the end of the season but it would not be a surprise if his team mates voted him the “game ball” for the effort and the example that he provided.

Some thoughts from a post on Troppo.

The Russian Revolution and its aftermath was the defining issue of the 20th century to assess the integrity and credibility of journalists, commentators and intellectuals. The  overwhelming majority failed the test. Peter Coleman and Robert Manne did not. This prompts the idea of an essay to compare and contrast the careers and contributions of  these two public figures.

“Peter Coleman and Robert Manne are Australia’s two most interesting public intellectuals. Discuss”.

They were both prepared to make the hard yards when it was very unfashionable in intellectual and academic circles to tell the truth about communism. Later on Robert Manne lost the plot, but that is another story.

It will be interesting to see the comments on Troppo. After my post on Joe Agassi’s book about Israel the Cats raised over 100 comments and the Troppodiles contributed 0!

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12 Responses to Is Peter Coleman our most productive public intellectual?

  1. dover_beach

    He’s certainly underrated, Rafe. I’ve got a soft spot for him because he’s a fellow Oakeshottian; in other words, he’s certainly a man of fine intellectual taste.

  2. ken n

    I would not use that term to describe Coleman.
    It is not a compliment.
    But I do agree that the book confirms, once again, that Coleman is wise and thoughtful – too much for a politician.

  3. Peter Patton

    I’ve never heard of him. Who is he? But then I do not think has a class of intellectuals at all.

  4. dover_beach

    I would not use that term to describe Coleman.
    It is not a compliment.

    Completely agree, Ken.

  5. I’ve never heard of him. Who is he? But then I do not think has a class of intellectuals at all.

    Well Peter, I just about finished that tome of a work: The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th century (Peter Watson) wherein towards the end of this 800 page text he mentions how the concept of the “public intellectual” has become an anachronism. I’m prepared to accept that because if wisdom is the ability to apprehend the world one lives in, there is no more wisdom.

    Very pleased that at the end of the text he mentions the mathematicians Kaufmann and Stewart. Some of their mathematical explorations of biological processes are fascinating and illuminating, reminding me of an email I received a few months back from an old friend in NY who met a group of scientists currently trying to completely re-formulate our understanding of evolution and genetics by reference to Dynamic Molecular Patterning. Fascinating, opens up a whole new world of inquiry. Pity I’m too dumb and too old to explore that.

    PS: Watson’s text is a great read.

  6. Rafe

    It is entirely honourable to be an intellectual in the sense of taking ideas seriously and being prepared to engage in serious discussion of them. The term has been brought into disrepute for several reasons, especially because so many intellectuals turned to the left in dogmatic and destructive ways.

    But to be properly intellectual is to be self-critical as well as being critical of others.

    And then there is the ignorance and spite of anti-intellectual yobboes.

  7. True Rafe but Watson is referring specifically to the public intellectual in the mould of old, writers and artists waxing lyrical about any and everything. We need a new type of intellectual, those who possess the relevant cognitive skills to address specific issues rather than this concept of all pervading wisdom being contained within one lonely soul. It ain’t like that anymore, it can never be like that again.

    Vis a vis the Left: Watson cites sociology, its founder lamenting that it has been completely captured by Marxist theorists and as a consequence has become largely irrelevant in the modern world.

  8. Rafe

    Thanks Ken that is a great feed, a regulatory agency for public intellectuals, I love it!

    There is also a link to the Public Intellectuals Network but all the names I recognise are weary old lefties. this is their top 40! (no Peter Coleperson)

    John, who is the founder of sociology cited above? Re Marxism, as someone said, the Marxists spend all their time interepreting Marxism, the point is to change it.

    I take the point that nobody can usefully rabbit about on every topic under the sun.

    There is scope for all kinds of intellectuals and I don’t really care about the definition. The point is that the public intellectuals for me are people who have some area or areas of competence and also write or speak to a general audience, not just the people who read the technical or professional literarature in those areas.

  9. Rafe,

    Sorry,not the founder but Irving Louis Horowitz in “The Decomposition of Sociology”.

    Yes, Intellectuals need to be out there educating the wider public but to give you one example I came across recently that indicates why “public intellectuals” can be farcical, I recall on the First Tuesday Book Club that 3 of the panel commented about Cloudstreet by Tim Winton: “If you have not read this book your life is diminished.” “Intellectuals” should never speak like this. The role of the intellectual should be to inform and advise, not stand from on high and tell others how to live their lives.

    The Left may dominate the media but that can be regarded as a failure of the Right to take up the challenge. I don’t know why the Right has lost out in this battle, perhaps it hasn’t, but I’d appreciate any information as to this strange state of affairs.

  10. Rafe

    Yes the person in question needs to be able to explain in simple language who our lives are diminished by failing to read Cloudstreet.

    On the domination of the Left in the media, the answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is that they won the public relations war among the intellectuals over the last 200 years and that trickled down into the mass media (with exceptions like Fox News). The complex part is to explain how they did it.

    Part of the explanation is the almost universal categorisation of positions into Left and Right which plays into the hands of the left.

  11. .

    I “had” to read Cloudstreet for the HSC.

    I skimmed through it a week before the HSC and then read the Cliff notes a few times.

    Time better spent playing Goldeneye or at house parties or chasing girls.

    I feel that Cloudstreet diminished my life.

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