The Last Intellectuals
Essays on writers and politics
by Peter Coleman
Quadrant Books, 320pp.
Reviewed: 15 August, 2010
Readers may approach this miscellany of Peter Coleman's later essays with assumptions based on Coleman's long public life as an energetic anti-communist, political conservative and Liberal politician, now father-in-law to Peter Costello.
I expected a coherent political survey of Coleman's engagement in the Australian front of the Cold War. Indeed, the flyleaf suggests that the book chronicles how “journalists, essayists, poets, novelists and editors defended cultural freedom and contributed to the collapse of communism”. The collection is both less, and more, than that.
Historians may debate how much anti-communist poets and novelists in Australia really contributed to the collapse of global communism. Coleman himself makes no exaggerated claims. A number of the essays do look back, with wry good humour rather than bombast, on the history of the international Congress for Cultural Freedom and its Australian affiliate, the Association for Cultural Freedom, which launched Quadrant magazine and published it for twenty years.
Coleman's conservatism was of the Menzian, liberal kind rather than the Tory, Howard kind. Though fiercely loyal to friends in the Quadrant circle such as the poet James McAuley, he sees himself as an apostle of the values of classical liberalism rather than an adherent to any modern ideology. He leaves current culture and history wars, on the whole, to others.
In 1966 Coleman was approached by McAuley to edit Quadrant, then a struggling bi-monthly which Coleman describes as having “grown out of a post-war no-man's-land of frustrated intellectuals, ideological acrobats, disillusioned Marxists, anticommunist Liberals, premature neo-conservatives, demi-vierges of Christianity … the flotsam and jetsam of the Age of Ideology”.
He found the milieu irresistible and took it on for most of the next twenty years.
Most of these essays were published in Quadrant from 1991 to 2009, when Coleman had passed his eightieth birthday and sixty years in the world of letters. There is no introduction or foreword to offer an organizing principle or purpose to the collection, and it is not stated whether chapters are excerpts or full reprints of the original published essays.
Fortunately, Coleman writes with great clarity, blessed brevity and well-calibrated force. Reminiscences of shenanigans of the cultural Cold War may intrigue younger generations as well as entertaining rusted-on Quadrant loyalists.
Coleman is really at his best not as a combatant but as a ponderer. A fine, self-critical piece describes his disillusionment with parliamentary politics, after stints as Liberal leader in the NSW parliament and as a Federal member for Wentworth in the last days of the Fraser government.
Some of his most interesting pondering takes the form of highly readable short essays on various thinkers influential on the liberal tradition, from John Milton and John Stuart Mill to Alfred Deakin and Michael Oakeshott. He finds philosophers more useful than economists as guides to good government. One may infer that he is one of many “wet” but loyal Liberals privately appalled by philistine neo-conservative influence on the modern Liberal Party, but with nowhere else to go.
This book's title is regrettable and unexplained - the phrase “last intellectuals” does not appear anywhere in the book and there is no hint as to who such people might be. Why dismiss every current and future thinker, however misguided one may consider some of them to be?
Richard Thwaites recalls the cultural Cold War as a background of distant artillery to his baby-boomer youth.