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On The Last Intellectuals by Peter Coleman.
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Peter Coleman is a free spirit. He was once the editor of The Bulletin, an Australian magazine that backed the United States in Vietnam at a moment when that mattered. Then he became editor of Quadrant, an Australian magazine whose main purpose was to expose Communist ideology and practice. During those fraught Cold War years, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization that was official though not declared to be so, sponsored Quadrant as an integral part of its defense of Western and democratic values. As a result, the Congress and the magazine and everyone connected with them were subjected by the left to constant abuse. Coleman participated in the Congress, and has written forcefully about it. In one of the essays in this collection he judges the world to be a conflict between the will to power and the will to truth. He takes the side of truth.
Rounding things out, and unusual in someone of such a temperament, he has occasionally been drawn towards power. Picking up what he now deprecates as the political virus, he became leader of the Liberals—as Australian conservatives describe themselves—in the New South Wales Parliament and then the Federal Parliament. About a quarter of these essays concern Australian politicians and a little specialist knowledge is a help here. Some of the personalities and the battles fought around them seem far away and long ago.
Public life in Australia is a rough-house. Coleman took a conservative position in the intellectual and cultural issues of the day. He says what he thinks in very direct prose. Two eminent philosophers, John Anderson and John Passmore, influenced him. Poetry has been another influence, and as an editor he made a point of discovering and publishing poets. A particular friend who crops up throughout these pages is the poet James McAuley, very much his own man like Coleman himself, a Catholic whose lyrics in the 1950s may “without much distortion be labelled as Cold War Poems.” Someone wrote a biography of McAuley to which Coleman took exception, and his demolition of this book is a pièce de résistance that merits a place in any anthology of vituperation.
What earns his praise is character, originality, the courage to be oneself in whatever the setting. He singles out Richard Krygier, a Jewish refugee from Poland who forced people to hear the bad news from Europe and was the publisher of Quadrant; the comic genius of Barry Humphries; Bruce Beresford’s films with their theme of defeat; the stand-alone manner of the novelists Xavier Herbert who once walked out of his own book launch because the audience seemed insufficiently respectful; and Amy Witting (whose memoir, if ever she wrote it, she used to say, would be called Recollections of a Barnacle on a Stationary Barge). He has particularly warm words for the Belgian Pierre Ryckmans, writing as Simon Leys about the barbarism of Mao Zedong and his Western apologists. It was a source of amazement that the left-wing and politically correct Australian Broadcasting Company should have invited him to give a set of prestigious lectures.
Coleman doesn’t explain anywhere in these essays exactly how and why he himself became a militant anti-Communist. A graduate student in the London School of Economics in the 1950s, he gravitated, as it were, on the wings of the zeitgeist into the orbit of like-minded intellectuals: Edward Shils; Leo Labedz, the editor of Survey; or Melvin Lasky, the editor of Encounter, the sister magazine of Quadrant. Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Robert Conquest, and others have cameo appearances in these pages. He records a visit to Malcolm Muggeridge, whose exposé of Stalin’s Soviet Union was a memorable victory for truth. He shows his approval of the politics of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler by reviewing books about them.
A certain flush of dismay nonetheless seeps through here and there. Michael Oakeshott may have demoralized Coleman by teaching him that politics can never achieve their purpose, indeed that everything is vanity. He doesn’t care for the permissive society or a state in which cultural grants are really a form of welfare. Philosophers and poets are distinguished by their absence. A grand old library in Sydney is no longer what it once was. Communism may have vanished but Islamism in his trumpet-call of a phrase means that “fate has knocked once again on the gate of existence” and the battle for Western values has to continue.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 April 2011, on page 74
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