But to be young was very Heaven!
That is exactly how I still feel about the 1960s and the early 1970s. In the context of your current, almost religious, conversion to the tenets of neoconservatism, you really are morally obliged to make some kind of assessment of whether our common activities in this period were justified, and whether they had good results.
Your current neoconservative associates were almost all diehard supporters of the Vietnam War, and they regard the radicalisation of the 1960s as the main source of a fundamental demoralisation and corruption in the Australian social fabric, in a similar way that your North American neoconservative allies regard the 1960s as the origin of the rot in the US.
Your US neoconservative colleague, the redoubtable right-wing cultural critic Gertrude Himelfarb, has just published a book One Nation. Two Cultures, a wholesale attack on the impact of the 1960s radicalisation on American life.
Ms Himelfarb is no friend of the Western Enlightenment. She clearly regards the Enlightenment as the beginning of major cultural problems in Western society. Her particular bete noir is everything to do with the 1960s. She laments the advent of the contraceptive pill. In her view the physical removal of the danger of pregnancy resulting from the availability of the Pill led to a terrible spread of moral decay, and it would be better that the pre-Pill situation still prevailed, so the threat of pregnancy naturally curtailed sexual promiscuity.
She is fiercely hostile to all multiculturalism, which she regards as disrupting the unity of American society. She is in love with the allegedly stabilising and civilising influence of US mid-western and southern evangelical religion, and she regards the decline of the grip of religion on the educated section of society as a terrible thing. She favours censorship. She is deeply hostile to the public celebration of homosexual sexual identity.
She is angered by the decline of what she calls “respect” for religious institutions, the capitalist social order, the Anglophone Western culture, the armed forces, US patriotism, the narrowly defined nuclear family, etc. She says there are, in the US, two cultural traditions: the good one that embodies all the above values, and the bad one that became more or less hegemonic in the corrupting radicalisation of the 1960s. (As I write this, I am struck by how similar her views are to those of Miriam Dixson, and I am amused by the way your Quadrant editor, McGuiness has suddenly got excited and accused Australian teachers of not teaching children proper “respect”, as part of one of his usual diatribes attacking their union’s industrial activities.)
McGuiness wrote recently in his column in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Who can learn from teachers who seem to dress out of the St Vincent de Paul clothing box, cannot handle English spelling and grammar, and who train their pupils to address their elders with familiar disrespect?”
Himelfarb’s book is getting a lot of attention in the US, particularly in the context of the current US presidential election, in which she is obviously a Bush Republican, in the sense that her emphasis on the importance of “core American religious values” is similar to Bush’s in mobilising the racist and bigotted anti-Catholic religious conservatives who run Bob Jones University, in support of his presidential nomination.
I confidently predict that your American neoconservative allies will all line up behind Bush, and will regard even McCain as too leftist to be trusted with the presidency. Consideration of Himelfarb’s book and the fascinating cultural questions raised in the current US presidential contest lead me to raise with you the need for a careful scrutiny of what we collectively did here in Australia in the 1960s and the 1970s, and whether its general impact has been good or bad.
First of all, the Vietnam War and conscription, the core political issue and the major catalyst of the 1960s social, political and cultural radicalisation in Australia, as in the US. Were we right to oppose the war and conscription? I believe we were, and I would be interested in your view.
Was the effect of our opposition to the war good or bad? I believe it was good. It produced a climate of opinion in Australia, among a large section of the population that was sceptical and critical of militarism, and this sceptical and critical stance has subsequently blocked the desire of conservative forces in Australian society to re-establish the mad, patriotic, my-country-right-or-wrong military attitudes of the old “British” Australia.
Out of a certain cultural tension between a large part of the Vietnam generation and some older Australians who celebrate Anzac Day as the central focus of Australian identity has arisen a kind of cultural equilibrium on military matters. It is inconceivable in modern Australia that an Australian government could commit Australian troops to such a clear intervention against a popular revolution in another country, as the Vietnam War was, and get away with it.
On the other hand, both the more traditional Anzac Day-oriented section of Australian society, and the Vietnam antiwar generation were recently united in supporting Australian military intervention to help the people of East Timor, with almost no dissent, except perhaps that of Paddy McGuiness, who was a noted neoconservative peacemonger on the question of Timor.
To summarise my view on Vietnam and conscription, we were right and David Armstrong and company were wrong, and the consequences of the radicalisation over Vietnam and conscription have been entirely healthy concerning military matters. What is your current view?
The radicalisation of the 1960s and the 1970s produced a massive, popular rebirth of feminism and the assertion of female equality and women’s rights. Notwithstanding some absurdities, particularly in the kind of cultural criticism practiced by Elizabeth Grosz, taken as a whole the radicalisation of women that started in the 1960s and the 1970s has produced an essentially progressive extension and entrenchment of the rights of women.
I notice that a few years after his death you have become intellectually infatuated with that pretentious old conservative humbug David Stove. To refresh my memory about Stove, I reread the collection of essays, Cricket Versus Republicanism, which is reverently referred to in neoconservative circles. I had forgotten just quite how stupid is Stove’s essay trying to demonstrate the natural inferiority of women.
His argument — that the absence of women historically in the arts and sciences demonstrated that in some sense women were genuinely inferior — sounded good to dimwits who felt that way anyway when he wrote the essay 10 years or so ago. That argument does not travel at all well in the current sociological circumstances.
The removal of many of the institutional obstacles to women’s education and development has produced a rather startling reversal, if you adhere to Stove’s misogynist point of view. Females are beginning to predominate in many areas of secondary and tertiary education, and they are comprehensively beating males in almost all areas of competitive examination these days.
According to a friend who teaches industrial relations at Sydney University, in the first-year course, which used to be an almost exclusively male preserve, about two-thirds of the 800 or so students are now women. This female predominance prevails in many other areas of education.
There is now a widespread educational discussion of the problem of male education, and of devices that might be used to bring up young men to the higher level of education now being established by women. That raises the question: if Stove’s view was right and women were in some sense objectively inferior, are men now objectively inferior, and what new evolutionary force has brought about such a spectacular reversal in the educational position of men and women? These developments make total nonsense of Stove’s dopey theoretical-historical construction that women are naturally inferior.
For myself, I am strongly of the view that the general impact of the struggle for women’s rights in the 1960s and the 1970s, and the feminism associated with that struggle, has had a totally favourable impact on the quality of life for all Australians, despite some contradictions and even absurdities thrown up in the course of that development. I would be interested in your view, and Liz’s view, on these matters.
You will remember the vigorous campaign that began in the 1960s, and was more or less completed in the 1970s, for the access of women to legalised abortion. First of all, the Levine legal decision achieved that necessary reform de facto, and the efforts of the late George Petersen and others in the NSW parliament led ultimately to legalised abortion.
I regard that development as enormously humane and important for the quality of life of all Australians. I wonder whether you agree or whether you share Gertrude Himelfarb’s misgivings about legalised abortion.
The 1960s and the 1970s brought an explosive assertion of rights by gay people, and a more or less completely successful campaign to eliminate the institutional and legal oppression of homosexuals. In 1977, a cultural-political event defending the rights of gay people, and proclaiming gay cultural identity, the Gay Mardi Gras, commenced in Sydney. This cultural event has grown to a point that about half the adult population, mainly heterosexuals, watch it in the flesh or on television.
It has become one of Sydney’s defining cultural events, and a great tourist attraction, without leading to the terrible promiscuity feared by Fred Nile and others. It has contributed greatly to tolerance and respect among Australians of all sexual orientations.
Again, the social and cultural results of the “coming out” of homosexual people, and the recognition and significant entrenchment of their human rights has been an unambiguously good thing. I’d be interested to know your views on these developments.
In the 1960s and the 1970s there were the Freedom Rides in outback NSW, the struggle for land rights in the Northern Territory associated with the pastoral workers' strike at Wattie Creek, and the 1967 referendum recognising the basic rights of Aboriginals and establishing their right to vote in elections.
Subsequently in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s there has been a very considerable and expanded assertion of Aboriginal cultural and political identity. This included the dramatic growth of the Aboriginal Health Service, spearheaded by Aboriginals themselves, with the redoubtable leadership and support of the amazing eye doctor Fred Hollows.
Despite teething problems and organisational mistakes, organs of Aboriginal self-determination such as land councils and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission have become a permanent part of Aboriginal life.
Despite resistance from the ruling class, Eddie Mabo’s successful prosecution of his land claim has opened the way for a large number of other entirely reasonable Aboriginal land claims.
In the 1970s the enormous mobilisation against apartheid in South Africa culminated in massive national demonstrations against the Springbok tour. Associated with those developments in Australia was a certain fascination among radicalised youth with Black Power in the United States, and cultural icons such as Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Angela Davis and Jimi Hendrix.
Taken as a whole, this aspect of the 1960s was humane and righteous. Despite the obvious fact that Australian society must do a great deal more to remove Aboriginal disadvantage, the improvements for Aboriginal Australians that started in the 1960s have been significant.
Also, the changed moral climate, in which it is no longer acceptable among most Australians to tolerate racism against Aboriginals, is in my view, an unambiguously healthy development. I’d like to know whether you think the increased concern about the rights of the first Australians, which commenced in the 1960s, has been good or bad.
The O’shea industrial battle in 1969, which I describe above, ushered in a period of strong assertion of trade union rights, a rise in real wages for trade unionists, and a growth of trade union membership, all of which were only reversed with the adoption of the Hawke governmen’t Prices and Incomes Accord in 1982, which precipitated a reversal of all those trends. Personally, I regard the upsurge of trade unionism between 1969 and 1982 as a very good thing. I’d be interested in your views on that question.
In the 1960s we collectively helped lay the basis for the overthrow of the White Australia Policy, which was completed in the 1970s. The courageous intellectuals of the Immigration Reform Group initiated this agitation, and it was taken up throughout the labour movement.
ACTU and Labor Party conferences carried resolutions removing the White Australia Policy from ACTU policy and the ALP platform, and the basis was laid for the subsequent abolition of White Australia by the Whitlam government.
Sensibly, the subsequent Liberal government of Malcolm Fraser continued and even widened the demolition of the White Australia Policy, much to the chagrin of anti-immigration conservatives such as Katharine Betts. The whole period since then has been one in which sources of migration have constantly broadened.
We now have infinitely greater cultural and ethnic diversity than ever before in Australia. For the first time, non-Anglo Australians are a comfortable majority of the population. Paradoxically, during this whole period of extraordinary ethnic and cultural change, overt racism in Australia has declined dramatically, compared, say, with the 1950s, in which we both grew up.
Personally I am an advocate of high immigration, without any discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, and I am a vociferous supporter of multiculturalism. In the last few years I’ve written a fair bit on these topics.
I note in one of your Quadrant essays a rather curious discussion of multiculturalism. You attack multiculturalism in the United States on the grounds that it is divisive of the American culture, and you make some mealy mouthed distinction between America and Australia, saying, in a rather condescending way, that all multiculturalism means in Australia is a wider variety of ethnic food, and that therefore it is not the same as the very bad multiculturalism in the US.
You can’t be unaware of the widespread attack on multiculturalism in Australia by your Australian neoconservative allies, particularlyther writers in Quadrant. I feel that if you make throwaway remarks about multiculturalism, you have an intellectual obligation to address the question in more detail concerning Australia, and I’d be very interested in a much broader elaboration of your views so we can have a serious debate on these matters.
Multiculturalism and migration are areas of major current discussion among public intellectuals. Clearly, once again, Himelfarb et al in the US are opposed to multiculturalism, opposed to immigration from non-European sources, and would like to have the power to insist that all migrants assimilate into the prevailing Anglo cultural hegemony there. I’d be interested in your balance sheet on those matters as applied both to the US and Australia.
These questions may have a certain personal resonance for you, as someone who commenced his intellectual activity in the sphere of Australian history. From your name, it’s clear that somewhere relatively recently in your ancestry is a German cultural heritage.
In my researches into ethnic and cultural Australian history, I have been sharply confronted by the circumstances surrounding 19th century German mass migration to Australia, and the suppression of German Australian culture that took place during the orgy of mad British Australia chauvinism characteristic of World War I.
I recently read Gerhardt Fischer’s important book Enemy Aliens, which describes in considerable detail the brutal way the German-Australian multiculture, which had been the second major multiculture after the Irish Catholics, was violently uprooted by the British-Australia racism directed at Australian’s German migrants, their children and grandchildren, between 1914 and 1919. Until I read Fischer, I must admit that I had forgotten how brutal these events were.
All the German towns in South Australia and Queensland were renamed, many Lutheran Churches were closed, and 6000 Germans and southern Slavs, many of them Australian citizens, who had been interned for years in Australia’s first concentration camp, at Holsworthy near Liverpool, were ruthlessly deported from Australia in 1919. The German language, which had previously been spoken by many thousands in the areas of German mass migration in South Australia and Queensland, was suppressed.
The German component, at 4 per cent, in the Australian ethnic mix is still the largest non-British component after the Irish, but most of those in Australia with a German ethnic heritage, like yourself, no longer have much knowledge of their cultural background because of its ruthless suppression during World War I. Someone named Windschuttle ought to be pretty sensitive on the question of multiculturalism, as, also, for that matter, should someone called Himelfarb.
Another aspect of the immigration and multiculturalism debate that possibly has some significance for you is Asian migration. I regard the recent explosion of Asian migration to Australia as a very healthy thing because, in practice, it internationalises Australia in the best possible way, not the worst way represented by the dominance of multinational corporations over our lives.
Without knowing too much about the details, I’d be extremely surprised if a large number of the students in your very successful educational institution, Macleay College, were not fairly recent Asian arrivals to Australia. I would have thought that a kind of basic human solidarity with a significant number of those out of whom one makes one’s living, should lead you to a liberal and civilised attitude supportive of increased Asian migration.
As you will have noticed, quite a few neoconservatives here and in the US are belligerently opposed to any increase in Asian migration, and many of them are opposed to any Asian migration at all. I would hope that you disagree with them on these matters.
I would be very interested to hear an exposition of your views, because, as I’ve said, in the course of your day-to-day educational activity, I imagine you have quite a deal of experience in dealing with Asian people who have come to Australia for educational purposes.
You can hardly have avoided noticing the constant theme that has emerged from the stable of populist right-wing journalists, Paddy McGuiness, Paul Sheehan, Michael Duffy and Piers Ackerman. They have made an enormous hullabaloo highlighting the antagonism to non-British migration and multiculturalism that is one aspect of the Pauline Hanson populist outbreak.
They have a sophisticated mantra best expressed by McGuiness and Duffy, who say the anger of rural people about migration and multiculturalism must be listened to, and taken notice of, but that the same people should not listen to backward “Luddites” who oppose the effects of economic rationalism on the lives of Australians who live outside the major cities.
Duffy was particularly succinct in this vein in The Telegraph recently. On the left-hand side of the page he had one column supporting the statement of a member of one “elite” — the Parliamentary political “elite” — Ross Cameron, the Liberal member for Parramatta, that rural people should move to the city if they couldn’t get jobs, or they didn’t like life in the bush under economic rationalism.
Duffy’s column said rural people who were outraged by this just had to understand the “facts of modern capitalist economic life”. In his right-hand column on the same page, he had another piece explicitly denouncing four judges as members of a terrible “elite” because they had had the temerity to write a very effective letter condemning the racist mandatory sentencing laws that bear down so vindictively on Aboriginal youth. Duffy really works hard to earn his money churning out right-wing journalistic populism of the most inflammatory sort.
The neoconservative populist journalistic pack tends to angle its demagogy in the same way. They hope to capture the justified anger of economically deprived and disenfranchised people and direct it against migration and multiculturalism, rather than against the brutal economic effects of the capitalist system, which they proclaim are inevitable economic necessities.
Personally, my whole political instinct is the opposite of theirs. I make common cause with the angry rural masses against economic rationalism, but I argue that migrants and multiculturalism aren’t the enemies of poorer Australians, and that the anger of the oppressed is better directed against the ruling class and the capitalist system itself.
A small-l liberal-conservative approach by Robert Manne on many matters, such as migration, multiculturalism and Aboriginal affairs, was obviously involved, among other issues, in his enforced removal from editorship of Quadrant and his replacement by McGuinness.
Many Australian conservatives who have been associated with Quadrant over many years, and who helped finance it, share Manne’s views on the above questions. These more liberal conservatives, who have a kind of equity in the future of Quadrant, may well be getting pretty toey about the way Quadrant is evolving under McGuiness’s quirky editorship.
The new editor is making all sorts of overtures towards strange elements out there on the right, for instance, towards the Mormon Church, which now has some influence in the right-wing liberal faction in the NSW Liberal Party. He has also published a lengthy and learned article by a right-wing astrologer. Maybe Paddy is consulting his own horoscope about what to publish next!
McGuinness has also published a rather curious article by Paul Monk attacking Robert Conquest, and Conquest’s high figures of the number of people murdered by Stalin, in the usual “revisionist” style of J. Arch Getty, Stephen Wheatcroft and Shiela Fitzpatrick. Why McGuiness would regard as worth publishing this revisionism on the facts of Soviet history is a bit difficult to comprehend, and it produced a completely justified and devastating response from Conquest, published in the March issue.
Alongside this extreme journalistic experimentalism has gone a certain shrinkage in the range of conservative views published. Even under McGuinness’s editorship there are still, from time to time, articles in Quadrant that I find useful and informative, like Alan Barcan’s article on history and history teaching. Nevertheless, most material in Quadrant these days is, in my view, useful only by way of negative example.
I’m not necessarily an unbiased critic of Quadrant, being a confirmed and long-standing opponent of its general outlook, but I have been a careful reader of the magazine since issue one, 45 years ago, and my impression is that under McGuiness’s editorship it has become narrower, more declamatory, and rather dull and boring, which must be a bit worrying for its more far-sighted conservative supporters. They may well be beginning to wonder whether it was such a good idea ousting Robert Manne.
The old Quadrant was a vehemently right-wing, anti-communist political and cultural review. The founder of Quadrant, Richard Krygier, was a Jewish social democrat, a survivor of both the Holocaust and Stalinism in Eastern Europe and Poland, where he was born. While his Quadrant was a pro-American, Cold War magazine, it was also strongly supportive of migration and not at all worried by diversity of cultures in Australia.
It opposed antisemitism and racial discrimination. While some of Quadrant’s significant contributors, Hal Colebatch and the late Frank Knopfelmacher, opposed multiculturalism, they were a minority, and the pioneer academic Catholic multiculturalist, the Polish Australian, Jerzy Zubricki, was more typical of the Quadrant view on migration and multiculturalism.
The civilised right, if they might be called that, of which Krygier and Zubricki were fairly representative figures, had a certain European culture, and steered well away from excesses of racist right-wing populism.
The attitude of the magazine over many years, towards immigration and cultural diversity, was clearly the result of a kind of equilibrium between right-wing Jewish European social democratic intellectuals like Krygier and right-wing Catholics like Bob Santamaria and James Macaulay who, in those days, were also pretty careful and discriminating in matters of race, culture and migration, and who tended to support the broadening of migration sources, and who certainly supported the liquidation of the White Australia Policy when it took place in the 1970s.
I have quite a sharp personal memory of Richard Krygier and the old Quadrant. Sometime in 1962, about the time of the second, deeper exposure of the crimes of Stalin by Khrushchev at the 22nd Congress of the CPSU, I heard from somewhere that Krygier and Quadrant had many spare copies of Khrushchev’s 1956 Secret Speech exposing Stalin.
I knocked on the Quadrant door, which was in an unrenovated old C-grade office building in the central business district. Krygier cautiously answered the door and let me in. He extracted from me the information that I wanted these pamphlets as part of my Trotskyist agitation among rank and file members of the Communist Party, and with a twinkle in his eye, he gave me 30 or 40 free copies of the New Leader version of the Secret Speech, out of about half a dozen big cartons in the corner of the room.
I was a bumptious young man in those days, and we then had a rather spirited and stormy argument about the Russian Revolution, Trotskyism, Stalinism, and the right-wing line of Quadrant and the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
Krygier impressed me as an intelligent and cautious man, and he was really very kind to me, considering how youthfully aggressive I was. I went back two or three times to get more stocks of the Secret Speech, which I dished out in all directions, and we had further heated but interesting arguments, in which neither won the other over, as you might expect.
He became quite generous with the books in his office and, as I remember it, he lent me copies of quite important texts of the 20th century, Whittaker Chambers's Witness for one, and two very important personal memoirs of Stalin’s camps, Conspiracy of Silence by Alex Weissberg, and Under Two Dictators by Marguerite Buber-Neuman. The civilised and shrewd Krygier I remember would turn in his grave at the direction in which McGuinness is taking Quadrant with such idiosyncratic verve.
I find it very difficult to imagine either Richard Krygier or Bob Santamaria being at all at ease with the new Quadrant. Krygier and Santamaria were lifelong political opponents of mine (among quite a few others) but, in my view, they would never have had a bar of the views expressed by Raymond Watson, Peter Kocan and Mark Uhlmann in the March 2000 issue of the magazine.
In this context, it is probably worth mentioning something that struck me forcibly looking at the list of names on the masthead of Quadrant. There are no longer any people of Jewish background on the editorial board, as far as I can see. This is a rather striking development, considering the instrumental role played by Richard Krygier and other right-wing social democrats of Jewish background in the old Quadrant.
A current feature of the magazine that would have totally repelled those people is the constant mantra attacking the “Aboriginal industry”. It is hard to imagine Quadrant under Krygier’s editorship organising a conference like the one recently organised by McGuinness and Quadrant about Aboriginal affairs, with its more or less explicit focus on opposition to land rights and other Aboriginal interests.
In Richard Krygier’s time the resident Quadrant expert on Aboriginal affairs was the Liberal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Bill Wentworth. While he was a reactionary on many matters, W.C. Wentworth was a reasonably liberal and civilised man concerning Aboriginal affairs.
In the extraordinary language used these days by Michael Duffy, Wentworth would probably qualify as a “white maggot”, because of his support for Aboriginal rights. In those days, Hal Wooten and Colin Tatz were contributors to Quadrant. These days they also certainly belong to what Duffy calls the “white maggot” brigade, because of their strong support for Aboriginal rights and interests.
People like Bill Wentworth, Hal Wooten and Colin Tatz would not be seen dead in the company of most of the people that McGuiness has conjured up as commentators on Aboriginal affairs.
The March 2000 issue of Quadrant is fascinating on these very important current political and cultural issues of migration and multiculturalism. There are many well-known and serious conservatives who are strong supporters of multiculturalism and highish migration, for instance Robert Manne, Malcolm Fraser, Greg Sheridan, Gerard Henderson and others.
In the March issue of Quadrant McGuinness has taken a very deliberate and considered lurch in the opposite direction to the civilised conservatives listed above. He has published a very long article by an extreme right-wing populist, Raymond Watson, downloaded from Watson’s Codex internet site, attacking and opposing further migration to Australia, and attacking multiculturalism in the style common to the right-wing populist journalistic pack, and to people such as Pauline Hanson and David Oldfield.
Even more curious to me (I have a rather long memory) is a modest book review in the March 2000 issue of Quadrant by the poet Peter Kocan. Way back when Kocan was a very disturbed young right-winger indeed, he attempted to assassinate Arthur Calwell during the bitterly contested “Vietnam” federal election of 1966.
In my lifelong “Forest Gump” persona, I happened to be standing nearby, at the back of a meeting against the war in Vietnam, which Calwell had been addressing at Mosman Town Hall, talking to Barry Robinson and Wayne Haylen, when Kocan fired the shot at Calwell. Kocan ran away, Robinson, Haylen and I hurtled off down the hill in pursuit of him and finally caught him.
We then handed Kocan over to the coppers. Wayne was actually the bloke who tackled him, as I remember it, but I am imortalised in the caption of a photograph of myself in Russell Ward’s book, Australia Since the Coming of Man, as the bloke who captured Kocan.
Calwell very publicly forgave his attempted assassin. Kocan did his time, recovered from his mental disturbance, wrote an interesting book about his prison experiences and became a rather widely published minor poet, particularly in Quadrant.
I recount these historical circumstances because, in the context of them I find Kocan’s book review thoroughly alarming. It is a review of a book A Wander in the Eternal Colony, by one Mark Uhlmann, who used to be a researcher and press publicist for Graeme Campbell MHR.
It is pretty clear from Kocan’s review that Uhlmann’s novel has a bit in common with the controversial populist novel, The Turner Diaries, which is so trendy among right-wing extremists in the US. Some parts of this review must be reprinted to catch the full flavour of Kocan’s and Uhlmann’s thoughts.
Mark Uhlmann’s first book was a collection of short stories, which brilliantly evoked the pain and confusion of the Australian experience over the past 30 years, when the elites were betraying us all to their new order of trendoid lies and cruelties. This new novel is set wholly in the early 1990s and is a sort of pilgrim’s progress through the captive zone.
The protagonist, significantly named Peter Landless, is nearly 30, an out-of-work actor, living in a cheap dive in Sydney. He drifts around the city with its waifs and strays and derros, and has been “thinking about death a bit lately”. Sydney itself represents the whole malaise of the age. It is a city of crooks both fiscal and intellectual, and a place where the most natural human relations have been made toxic.
A normal love life is hard to find because one is up against “ideas and ideologies”. Being a hetero male means that “you’re immediately a suspect” and a prime target for the criminal law used as a weapon of political terrorism. The demoralisation is summed up in some graffiti he sees: “Few are worth the struggle of the sperm” …
That spirit of defiance fills Uhlmann’s writing in the latter part of the novel and lifts it at times to a thrilling eloquence in which pity and contempt vie for control. In the gardens of the Exhibition Building, one of the sacred sites of Federation, Peter has a sick vision of the trendoid society-wreckers “swarming like white ants on the foundations of the past. Some were idealists, but lines of misery followed in their wake. Again and again they surged around the foundations of buildings, gnawing at wood, chipping away at stone, tearing down and destroying and, where they could be bothered to build, building with rotten and corrupted materials.
At the end of his pilgrimage Peter has a decision to make. But that matters less than the fact that he has now come to the sticking-point: “I gathered up my self-respect and took offence at what was going on.”
Edmund Burke took the same offence when he saw the great social contract of humanity menaced by the Jacobin malignants of his time: “I would add my part to those who would animate the people (whose hearts are yet right) to new exertions in the old cause.”
It could be said that this novel is about the brewing in hearts and minds of the political insurrection that Pauline Hanson would lead later in the decade. That insurrection may or may not have failed, but the “old cause” Burke spoke of is not only about calculations of short-term success. It is a timeless impulse to uphold the Permanent Things — the cradle, the grave, the marriage-bed and the altar — against the despoilers. Defeat and exile are often its badges of honour.
In the US, liberal and leftist opponents of the New Criterion neoconservatives assert that there is a rapidly developing continuum between the New Criterion neoconservatives, the religious right, and even “militia” extremists like the bloke who wrote The Turner Diaries.
The extraordinary angry and aggressive flavour of Uhlmann’s novel and Kocan’s enthusiastic review, and the fact that the review is published without comment in Quadrant, suggests strongly to me that a certain continuum is developing in Australia between many of the right-wing intellectuals around Quadrant, and figures such as Pauline Hanson.
As the literary part of this development seems to be spearheaded by Peter Kocan, who, when all is said and done, is still, however rehabilitated, Australia’s only living released reformed ultra-right-wing attempted political assassin, my political instinct is to prepare very seriously against possibly colourful future developments coming out of these circles.
The 1960s and the 1970s were the period when an enormous preoccupation with the environment erupted amongst the whole population. While environmental concerns are often satirised in the popular press, they are now almost universal and they are a product of the obvious fact that both the capitalist world, and the late and unlamented Stalinist regimes have had a devastating effect on the natural world, on which we all depend for our ultimate survival.
In the important area of urban planning, the Builders Laborers Federation pioneered the use of industrial muscle against inappropriate building development. I regard this explosion of concern about the natural environment as a very healthy thing.
I regard the use of this industrial power against the blind forces of the capitalist market on urban planning and the environment, expressed at its highest point in the activities of Jack Mundey and the Builders Laborers Federation, as useful and decisive pioneering social developments.
In the year 2000, a general concern with the environment and at least some restraints on unreasonable development have become an entrenched part of the political and social landscape, and we owe most of that to the upheavals of the 1960s and the 1970s and particularly, in NSW, to Jack Mundey and the BLF. I regard all this as entirely progressive. I’d be interested in your views on these questions.
I had many criticisms of the Whitlam Government when it was in power, although I was very glad when it was elected, and I regarded the manner of its removal as a vicious attack on the democratic process, which highlighted the need for Australia to become a republic.
The aspect of the Whitlam Government’s activities that most enrages neoconservatives is the introduction of free tertiary education, which lasted until the mid-1990s. Neoconservatives have for many years been apoplecticabout how bad this free university education was.
They have also been frothing at the mouth recently about what they call a “New Class” of tertiary educated people who emerged from the educational explosion of the 1960s and the 1970s, who they quite correctly notice, have opposite views on almost everything to their own reactionary collection of views. The neoconsertives support every increase in the fees imposed on tertiary students, and they get very worked up against what they call “middle-class welfare”.
I regard the free education of the Whitlam period as a very good thing. It kickstarted the very dramatic increase in the sweep of access to tertiary education. Since about 1970 the number of people with a tertiary qualification has increased from about 3 per cent of the adult population to more than 17 per cent.
Despite misgivings that we might have about some features of current education, surely the numerical expansion of tertiary education to include large sections of people of working-class origin is a very desirable development. I regard the neoconservative attack on the part of the population that benefited from the Whitlam free education as vicious, self-interested, reactionary nonsense.
The people who make these attacks would apparently prefer that education be restricted to a small elite, with a proper inculcation in, and respect for, conservative values.
I notice in the March 2000 issue of Quadrant a comprehensive critique of your views on postmodernism and educational theory by Sam Roggeveen, a young conservative influenced by the libertarian conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott.
This critic makes the valid point that you repeatedly assert that the education system should inculcate conservative values, and he counterposes Oakeshott’s view that serious educational arrangements should not be constructed in such a totally authoritarian way, but give students a rounded education, not overloaded by ideological constructs.
I notice Paul Sheehan quoting you on educational matters in a lengthy article in the Herald. I have to admit that I couldn’t clearly understand what you were getting at from the quotes in Sheehan’s article. This may have been the result of confused sub-editing.
As the question of the dramatic increase in the number of tertiary educated people (the so called “New Class”) and associated current questions of educational organisation and funding are the subject of considerable public discussion at the moment, I’d be interested in a more rounded exposition of your views on these matters, particularly in the light of your experience as a fairly successful educational entrepreneur.
Educational policy and organisation are very complex questions, and involve both issues of ideology and belief, and fairly practical considerations of sociology and technique, posing such problems as what are the real effects of computers on education, and many other detailed problems.
I don’t claim to be an expert on these matters. Your views in this area are likely to be more technically informed than mine, but I do have a few strong opinions on some aspects of education. I believe that in this area you could probably make a real contribution to the necessary debate by a more explicit exposition of your current views.
The question of the republic came on the scene with a bang after the Canberra Coup in 1975. I’m sure you remember the popular agitation against the coup, and the widespread outrage at Governor General Kerr’s action in dismissing the Whitlam government.
In this context, I’m floored by your sudden infatuation with the spiteful conservative journalism of that hoary old Tory, David Stove. Almost nothing could be dopier or more open to caricature than his pompous essay Cricket Versus Republicanism.
This curious essay is an elegy to cricket, the sport in Australia of the middle and upper classes (as opposed to Rugby League and Aussie Rules, which are the sports of the working class and the middle class), which then wanders into a self-serving thesis that a proper interest in cricket is some kind of insulation in Australia against the dangers of mass republican sentiment.
This thesis is, of course, contradicted by current developments. Something like 80 per cent of the population now favour a republic. Which raises the question: have you shifted over to the neoconservative opposition to a republic? If so, perhaps you could explain your views on this matter.
Which brings me to another point. In electoral politics, all the social changes described above steadily eroded the core conservative, that is Liberal and National Party, electoral vote.
Most of your current neoconservative intellectual allies vote Liberal or National. Here I may be offending against residual notions of bourgeois liberalism, but I’d be interested to know if you now vote Liberal. Voting behaviour has a big bearing on culture, politics and life. (I’m mindful of the fact that you and Liz have lived for many years in the wonderful old terrace house in Paddington, once the home and electoral office of the redoubtable autodidact E.J. Ward MHR, the most intelligent, well-read and determined leader of the Labor left in the federal parliament for 30 years. If you do now vote Liberal, watch out for hauntings from the ghosts of Eddie Ward and his wife, Edie.)
The 1960s inaugurated a period of steady decline in formal religious adherence, and therefore of the authoritarian and illiberal role of organised religion in Australia.
While I regard the Irish Catholics as a relatively progressive and leftist social force in past Australian history, nevertheless the general decline of organised religion is a very healthy development. This attitude is sharpened in me when I observe the reactionary character of the fundamentalist religious revival in the US.
The grip of right-wing fundamentalist Protestants on the political process in the US has been thrown into sharp focus by the current Republican primary contest. Your North American neoconservative associates generally align themselves with the religious right in the US and bemoan the decline of organised religion. This point of view is clearly present in Gertrude Himelfarb’s book. I’d be interested to know how you regard the decline of organised religion in Australia that has gathered such momentum since the 1960s.
In the 1960s and 1970s, we smashed the previously all-pervasive censorship to smithereens. You were rather important in that development, in that the Honi Soit and Old Mole you edited sharply defied the prevailing censorship.
I remember that you had some severe misgivings about the explosion of popular erotica, some of which you regarded as demeaning to women, and you and I had considerable differences about those matters even then. I notice that in all editions of your book on the media, while you take a generally favourable attitude to most capitalist media, on the grounds that they essentially “give the public what they want”, you make an exception from that standpoint with a very hostile attitude to the sex magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse.
The old arguments about these matters are still relevant. Many of us took the view then that, while some sexual literature had “sexist” aspects, these were no worse than the sexism prevalent in less sexual popular literature, newspapers, television and movies.
It was obvious to us that censorship was directed not really against “sexism”, but against the relatively liberating explicit sexual aspects of the things censored, which was why they had such an enormous interest for people who had grown up in the repressed sexual atmosphere of Australia in the 1950s and the early 1960s.
By the mid-1970s, censorship (about sexual matters among consenting adults) was largely defeated. It is only now that people like Brian Harradine are having any success in re-erecting a certain amount of censorship. Most people on the liberal and left side of society, including most feminists, for instance Lyn Segal, have the view that censorship is in general bad, despite the sexism of some popular literature. The battle over the recent explicit movie, Romance, is one example of the ongoing struggle against unreasonable censorship.
I regard our successful demolition of censorship in the 1960s and 1970s as a very good thing, and I believe that we should exert ourselves vigorously against any re-imposition of censorship on sexual or political or religious matters. I’d be very interested in an exposition of your current views on these matters.
I strongly disagree with Himelfarb’s view about the contraceptive pill leading to sexual promiscuity. I regard the greater sexual freedom that the Pill assisted, which spread widely in the 1960s and the 1970s, as a generally healthy thing.
The rapid decline, in some social groups, of the previously dominant nuclear family was an inevitable development of modernity, for many economic and social reasons, some of them quite unrelated to sexuality. I don’t have any fashionable postmodern view that the nuclear family ought to be artificially extinguished, and I don’t believe that in real life that is at all likely to happen, but the great diversity of social and sexual arrangements that now exist is an inevitable feature of the modern world.
Most people will take advantage of sexual freedom when it is available to them, although some do not because of religious beliefs or aesthetic considerations. Uninhibited sexuality erupted in many ways. It possibly had some negative features, but it sure beat the hell out of the previous sexual repression of the 1950s, that you and I probably both remember vividly.
Your new editor, one time anarchist turned prodigiously energetic neoconservative newspaper columnist Paddy McGuinness, seems strangely preoccupied with some sexual matters, like the column he wrote a few years ago, implicitly justifying censorship by talking about the need to protect nubile daughters from corruption, mainly literary.
He has also had some pretty weird, rather witch-hunting pieces in his column ascribing the political agitation over the Victoria Street evictions and the campaign in support of the Green Bans of the BLF, to sexual activity between radical middle-class women and male Builders Laborers Union officials.
From memory, I seem to remember one of these columns was headed Reds in the Beds. At the time these columns appeared, I had the feeling that Paddy’s prurient memory of those events may have been based on some of the women in question not being in his bed.
I must admit that I’m not haunted by that period in the same way as McGuiness and I have rather more nostalgic memories of sexual life in the 1960s and the 1970s.
Who can forget the extraordinary way the image of Megan Stoyles’ glorious breasts went all around the world in 1967. This happened when an enterprising photographer took a picture of Megan at the Canberra demonstration against Marshall Ky from South Vietnam, and focussed on her tight fitting T-shirt with the words: “Make Love Not War”.
Megan was a spectacular-looking woman and a boisterous and well- liked activist in many spheres. The way that image of her saturated the mass media in dozens of countries, and ended up on the cover of Time, caught something of the feverish, rather exuberant, and even innocent, sexual atmosphere of the time.
Previous sexual inhibitions disintegrated among the literate middle-class and the more educated sections of the working-class in many countries in this period. Whatever the social difficulties subsequently, this substantial retreat of inhibition in the very important sphere of sexual activity was altogether healthy and is culturally and socially more or less irreversible.
My experience of life teaches me that in these most basic matters of sexuality, a certain civilised tolerance of diversity is a necessary requirement of rational public policy. The Himelfarb, fundamentalist Christian, neoconservative wailing about the collapse of what they regard as basic social mores concerning sexuality, is metaphysical, idealist nonsense.
Similar considerations apply to the drug question. Personally I have never smoked, I don’t drink much, and I don’t take drugs. Nevertheless, I lived through the period of popular drug experimentation since the 1960s. My considered view is that soft drugs like marihuana are no more anti-social than drinking or smoking, and should be therefore legalised, controlled and taxed in a similar way to tobacco and alcohol.
I’m rather more hostile to heavily addictive drugs such as heroin, but I believe they should be treated more as a medical than a police problem. In my experience the limited moves towards legalisation of marihuana that have taken place since the 1960s are a good thing, and the current attempts by some Australian state governments to treat addictive drugs partly as a medical problem are also very sensible.
The widespread use of marihuana, which began in the 1960s, is no better or worse than the widespread use of alcohol and cigarettes, and in that respect, I totally reject the hysteria of the neoconservatives about these matters.
I’d be interested in your views on these questions. I seem to remember that way back then, when you were generally on the left, you had strong reservations about some aspects of the developments that I’ve just described. I myself had a very hostile attitude to drugs at that time, and my views on that matter have modified in the way that I’ve just described.
As I am sure you agree, we have to consider these questions in a concrete way, with an eye to the immediate social consequences of any public policy that we support.
In your article deconstructing Steinbeck, you throw in a rather extraordinary aside about Stalinism in North American folk music. Apparently Allan Lomax and the Library of Congress were caught up in something similar to the “Steinbeck conspiracy”, in that they tried to create a false impression that there was a plebian folk tradition in the US, which was apparently untrue, because in 1940 everyone was singing On the Beach at Bali Bali. Zowie!
You also now seem rather preoccupied with the proposition that Woody Guthrie was a Stalinist fraud. In your view, he wasn’t really a proletarian (which you seem to believe that he purported to be) but really came from an affluent middle-class family. You assert that he was only slumming it when, apparently for totally political reasons, he artificially manufactured the plebian folk idiom for which he is now well known.
I must admit to being rather startled by all this. This kind of pursuit of the Thin Red Line in music may be rather fashionable these days among American neoconservatives, but I am astonished to find you repeating it in a deadly serious and didactic tone.
You used to know quite a lot about popular music. Your chapter on music in your 1980s book on the media is useful and civilised, and I note that in it you even refer favourably to Woody Guthrie without drawing any attention to your now asserted proposition that he was some kind of Stalinist fraud.
In his autobiography, Bound for Glory, Guthrie doesn’t disguise his middle-class background. Like many others out of the middle class, he was thrown on to the unemployment scrapheap by the Depression, and being musically inclined, commenced his lifetime exploration and creative adaptation, of an American folk tradition in music. What’s so terrible about that, unless, like a lot of neoconservatives, you regard the only legitimate musical idiom as high classical? Do we all have to become aficionados of Palestrina for our musical interests and tastes to be legitimate?
As you outlined in such a relaxed and informed way in your chapter on popular music in the media book, the musical history of the 20th century has been extremely complex. There are a lot of influences at work: jazz and blues, country music, assorted folk idioms, including American, the tin-pan alley popular music of the American 1920s, and the large reservoir of the high classical tradition. When rock and roll emerged in the 1950s and the 1960s, all the above influences were present.
Musically, the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s witnessed the dramatic eruption of high rock as the dominant idiom, which happened to coincide with the emergence of the long-playing record as the dominant technology, and record covers as the artistic accompaniment of that medium.
Even if it were true that Woody Guthrie was bending the stick a bit in his creation of a hobo folk idiom, so what? That’s how music develops. Some creative musical maniac gets a bright idea, usually based initially on a synthesis from previous idioms and artists, and injects into it his or her own ideas.
Like Steinbeck in the literary field, the critical thing isn’t your rather jaundiced reconstruction of Guthrie's possible political motives, but the way his musical work struck a chord with a significant minority of the generation of the 1940s, which did happen at that time to be the very large minority influenced by left-wing politics.
The interesting thing about Woody Guthrie is the later “crossover” element, a common phenomenon in musical development. In the 1960s and the 1970s, Guthrie’s idiom was taken up in a dramatic way by Bob Dylan, whose stylised rock folk spread like wildfire in the popular arena, and in a way expressed the mood of that whole generation of youth.
Dylan became, in his time, at least as popular as On the Beach at Bali Bali was in the 1940s. Pete Seeger and Peter Paul and Mary took up some of Woody Guthrie’s idiom as well, and a great ferment of musical forms unfolded.
The dominant form in the 1960s and the 1970s was the high rock of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, etc, but the stylised rock folk idiom of Dylan and others came a close second. Do you remember how the emotional and bitter lyrics of Country Joe and the Fish exactly caught the atmosphere of our generation on the Vietnam War and conscription? You might also remember how the less political, rather humorous and fey music of Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo Guthrie, also caught the mood of the time, particularly the delightful record and movie, Alice’s Restaurant.
As you quite properly pointed out in the media book, the musical developments of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were also profoundly interlocked with the economics of the music industry. That’s the way things work under capitalism, as we both know. The question then arises, if Woody Guthrie and other leftist musical innovators were responsible for a Stalinist corruption of music through the crossover to Bob Dylan and others (as Himelfarb and other neoconservatives obviously believe), are the capitalist masters of the music industry also somehow tied up in this Stalinist cultural conspiracy? The further you go in this direction, the madder this kind of cultural deconstruction tends to get.
For my part, I think this kind of deconstruction of the Thin Red Line, when applied to music history, is totally nuts. The neoconservatives who are hostile to the “corrupting influence” of rock music, have an unstated standpoint, in which the only legitimate idiom is the high-culture classical music idiom, which is reinforced by their deep hostility to the sexual and social content of much rock music.
Some right-wing religious lunatics even have a theory that there is a subliminal Satanist message (backward masking) in all rock music, which is revealed if the records are played backwards.
The whole cultural outlook of neoconservativism concerning music is really quite ludicrous. Do we all have to go to the last night of the Proms and sing Rule Britannia! I’m no great aficionado of rock music. I just know what I like: Dylan, Joan Baez, the Rolling Stones, Country Joe and the Fish, and Woody Guthrie.
Nevertheless, above and beyond my own limited musical interests, I have enormous nostalgia for the mellow and relaxed musical atmosphere that pervaded the 1960s and the 1970s. Radio disk jockeys now, when they are engaged in their programming, routinely promote themselves by saying they have a mix of the hits of the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, etc.
That’s how popular music is these days, and what’s so bad about that! Note the important legacy from the 1960s and the 1970s. I’m more at ease, personally, with folk music, and some rock, than with Bach or Palestrina, but that’s only my personal taste, and should not be imposed on the musical public. Neither should the snobbish musical prescriptions of neoconservatives.
In the course of my activities in the 1960s, as a major organiser of the Vietnam antwar movement, I was greatly taken with the superstars of tabloid journalism, the ambulance-chaser photographers working for the daily newspapers and the television news. These extraordinary men, who used to photograph our demonstrations, and turn up everywhere, usually adopted a demeanour of hardened cynicism about what they were doing.
They often attempted to shock us with gory stories of how they had managed to get a close-up photo of some dying person in a car crash on the Bridge or whatever. We soon discovered that, behind this hard, blasť persona, which they obviously adopted for reasons of psychological survival, these cynical men of the press, were solidly on the side of the rebels, and behind this screen of toughness they were often profoundly moved by the human dramas that they witnessed in the course of their professional work.
These ingenious photographers and photo-journalists gave our antiwar agitation the publicity it needed to influence public opinion, and their coverage of our activities was a very major factor in the ultimate shift in public mood about the Vietnam War.
The populist sensationalism of the tabloid media for which these photographers worked produced in them a hard-edged professionalism and a talent for survival, but in an unusual sort of way it also radicalised them. These photographers constantly reminded me of that wonderful short story by Irwin Shaw in Mixed Company, in which a greenhorn in an American advertising agency in the 1930s runs up against a tough, blasť, journalist who advises him to just give the boss what he wants.
The old journalist manufactures all kinds of tabloid copy, and convinces this neophyte that he is the greatest cynic on earth, but suddenly disappears from the agency because he can’t stomach the job any more. All professional bourgeois journalism contains a lot of sharp human contradictions, like those described by Irwin Shaw.
I remember that when Keith breezed into the radical movement after his tough apprenticeship, for five or six years, in the tabloid media, along with his radicalism went a tough and attractive realism about journalism.
In those days, this was combined in him with a deep hatred of the ruling class that owned the newspapers, and a considerable understanding of the powerfully manipulative impact of the tabloid media, which he knew intimately from the inside. Later on, in the 1970s, Keith was the driving force in the New Journalist and in the introduction to his book on unemployment he pays particular tribute to his colleagues in that very useful pioneering magazine of critical inquiry into journalism.
For all these reasons, I take Keith’s opinions about the media and journalism seriously. He is an expert in this area, probably Australia’s greatest living technical expert now that Henry Mayer is dead.
I often found myself, in the past, in agreement with some of Keith’s ideas. I agreed with his quite proper assertion that a condescending attitude towards the popular culture, of the sort adopted by all snobs, from Leavisites to postmodernists, is ludicrous.
In his book, The Media: a New Analysis of the Press, Television, Radio and Advertising in Australia, his defence of the popular culture, with his initial quote from Trotsky, is eloquent and unanswerable, and that’s my opinion too. I agree with his general point about the uselessness of much cultural criticism, which in some journalism “education”, takes the place of any serious training in the journalists’ trade.
It seems obvious to me that he is correct in his proposition that the first things that media professionals should do is learn the nuts and bolts of journalism in a practical way. No amount of scholastic “deconstruction” is a substitute for that.
Like Keith, I have encountered quite a few graduates of so-called “schools of journalism” who know everything about semiotics, and not much that is practical or useful about how to write a story, edit an article or produce an elementary layout for a leaflet.
I also am inclined to accept Windschuttle’s general account of the structure of the media. His four-times reprinted book on the media has always struck me as the most useful book of recent times in Australia about the subject.
Having said all that, when you read critically the successive editions of Keith’s media book, you can see in it the beginnings of his dramatic political shift to the right.
Having considered the above question over quite a long period, I’ve come to the conclusion that Keith is wrong in his deconstruction of critics and observers of the media like Humphrey McQueen, who stress the enormous instrumental power over “public opinion” possessed by the capitalist owners of the media.
Keith’s conceptions can be seen evolving in the successive editions of his book, and in his more recent articles on journalism. Windschuttle’s view has finally evolved into the basic proposition that the media give the masses what they really want, and that the owners of the media, rather than dominating the media and looking after their own interests, are somewhat more neutral than this, and that therefore the right-wing character of most of the media is just a reflection of the underlying desires of the audience.
I regard this view as ultimately nonsensical. While it is true that newspaper proprietors and other media owners, and their main ideological commissars at the managerial level, often tailor what they produce to different markets, nevertheless they devote an enormous amount of effort to trying to mould public attitudes to suit their economic and social interests.
Rupert Murdoch is the most powerful, influential and politically conscious media owner in the world. In Australia he has two major papers, The Australian pitched at the conservative layer of the middle class, and the unspeakable Sydney tabloid The Telegraph, which day after day, year after year, attempts to arouse the most backward and prejudiced and right-wing sentiments in the less formally educated section of the population.
The two newspapers are often quite different. They look after Murdoch’s interests in different ways, but they both, sure as hell, do look after his interests. On the global scale, Murdoch advances his business in diverse ways in different countries.
As an example of this, all his newspapers and televisin interests avoid even the mildest criticism of the Stalinist bureaucracy in China, because of Murdoch’s considerable stake in the Chinese market. (So much for the abstract defence of democracy, which is the stuff of so much hypocritical bourgeois media rhetoric, and also of the rhetoric of neoconservatives.)
Murdoch’s tabloid, The Telegraph, raises xenophobia almost to the realm of high art. It is interesting to consider that Murdoch himself is clearly not racist in his private life. His new wife is Chinese, his previous wife was of European migrant background, and his daughter married an African, with family approval.
Nevertheless, as part of his global commercial activities he is prepared to own and expand a number of tabloid newspapers whose daily specialty is what is coming to be called “wedge” politics, which quite clearly focuses on antagonism to all kinds of political and cultural minorities, while disclaiming that’s what they are doing, sheltering behind populist rhetoric.
The Telegraph has raised this kind of thing to an art form. Columnists like Duffy, Devine and Ackerman fulminate. Ostensible letter pages and records of email polls on emotive issues are so organised as to highlight the most xenophobic sentiments, and make opponents of xenophobia appear like ridiculous representatives of the “New Class”.
Pompous tongue-in-cheek editorials accentuate and spell out these populist lessons for anyone who reads editorials in this kind of newspaper. The extraordinary frenzy into which The Telegraph has worked itself in the last few weeks about the associated mandatory sentencing, and stolen generation issues, defending John Howard in outraged tones, is a wonderful working example of how this kind of tabloid operates.
The implacably ingenious way that this tabloid has beaten up “bag snatching in Redfern”, to divert attention from mandatory sentencing and the stolen generations, is just par for the course.
An even more instructive example of this kind of thing is The Telegraph “letters” page, particularly its recent handling of the fact that Cathy Freeman was chosen to light the Olympic flame. Despite the overwhelming popularity of Cathy Freeman for this role, which was ultimately confirmed by several reputable opinion polls, as being more than 80 per cent, The Telegraph conducted an implacable “letters” page campaign against the choice, from the Monday through to the Thursday, including its own email “poll”, which predictably showed about 75 per cent against Freeman.
This is a striking case in which the sharp ideological intervention of the management of a tabloid newspaper is used to mould perceived opinion in the way management wishes, quite independently of broader public opinion. So much for giving the public what it wants in the broader sense. The Telegraph management gives the public something considerably more atavistic and meaner than the popular sentiment in the world at large.
To infer, as you do, Keith, that this very special genre of populist tabloid journalism is a more or less natural process, giving back to the audience what it wants, is absurd, and it grossly underestimates Murdoch’s power, judgment, and interventionist style as an entrepreneur. (Murdoch is famously reputed to monitor the content of all his major newspapers on a more or less day to day basis.)
This view also under-rates the peculiar skills honed by the extremely talented journalists who turn this stuff out so effectively and regularly, day after day, year after year.
In Sydney the opinion part of most newspapers, even the ostensibly progressive Herald, is increasingly dominated by right-wing views. There are a number of working journalists in all sections of the media who have progressive or leftist views. These days, they are usually swimming against the stream.
You get a constant mantra from right-wing ideologues of the McGuiness variety to intimidate anyone working in the media who is a bit on the left side, with gratuitous abuse about how they belong to some kind of “New Class” that is allegedly more powerful than Murdoch, Packer and the directors of National Australia Bank.
Even Greg Sheridan, on most things a man of the right himself, was so angered by the explosion of right-wing demagogy on migration and race that he made the very telling throwaway remark that every right-wing populist in Sydney who can spell has an opinion column in one of the newspapers.
In his book on the media, Keith records in a rather smug way the demise of the National Times, which he attributes to its naivete in attacking powerful figures like Murphy, Wran and Packer in a frenzied spurt of investigative journalism in the early 1980s. Well, in my view, that burst of investigative journalism was one of the more courageous things done by journalists in my lifetime, and Keith’s rejection of it is a bit of a commentary on how his views have evolved. Obviously, these days, in Keith’s view, smart journalists should be very careful how they treat the rich and powerful.
Keith’s critique of the cruder theories of capitalist hegemony in the media contains an element of truth. The way sections of the ruling class in capitalist society run the media is often diverse and complex. The proposition advanced by some leftists that the masses are just dazed automatons, completely lobotomised by the control that the ruling class exercises over the media, overstates the situation considerably.
Nevertheless, Keith’s basic thesis, in its final form, is even more mistaken than the crudest reductionist theories of “capitalist hegemony”. The ruling class does still rule, in all sections of the media, as it does in the rest of society, and it does its damndest to see that the media influence the masses in such a way that they generally advance the interests of the ruling class. This capitalist control is glaringly obvious in most media management and most senior figures in the media.
People like Paddy McGuiness, Gertrude Himelfarb, Miriam Dixson, Michael Thompson and others, conduct an unrelenting attack on those who they stigmatise as the “Vietnam generation” or the “baby boomers” and on their cultural and social attitudes. There can be no doubt that something extraordinary and spectacular really did happen on a global scale in the 1960s and the 1970s, which did change many social practices, popular culture, high culture, sexual mores and religious beliefs.
You must remember the intensity of that period between, say, 1965 and 1975 in Australia, when these major social changes really got going. That time produced a tense, enthusiastic, wild and complex mosaic of experiences for all of us who were young at the time.
For those of us who were politically active on the left, who became a large and significant minority of the population by the middle of the 1970s, it was a particularly exciting period. We made many mistakes and we took many wrong turnings, but nevertheless what I remember is the relatively liberating atmosphere that developed. I also remember the intense fellowship and esprit de corps that existed amongst left political activists, despite the many sharp political and cultural differences that sometimes developed between us.
I remember having a relationship for a while with a woman who lived in the same house as an intellectual colleague of yours, Sue Bellamy, a young academic of working-class origin, like yourself, from Sydney’s western suburbs. Like you, Sue was trying to push her way into academe, in the face of the double obstacles of being a woman and being working class. Like you, she eventually left academic life to do other things.
I vividly remember the intensity of discussions with Sue, and the enormous intellectual influence that you obviously had on her (she had been one of your students, as I remember it) and your common battles with conservatives about the teaching of history, curriculum, educational methods, etc, as you were both starting off in the history stream in academia, in the face of an entrenched conservative establishment and atmosphere.
As you must remember, the period included a very considerable revolt against, and criticism of, the conservative educational framework dominant at that time. Do you remember the Free University, where for a couple of years a stream of alternative education flourished? Counter-courses and critiques of courses were widespread. I’m sure you remember the upheaval in the Economics Department when students who wanted more contemporary and leftist courses in political economy conducted an agitation that culminated in a strike, and some public demonstrations during which Hall Greenland, Bill Waters, Hayden Thompson, and David Hill were either expelled from the Sydney University or victimised in some way.
I’m sure you also remember the internal conflict in the Philosophy Department in which David Armstrong, your present colleague on Quadrant, was the main leader of the group opposed to the teaching of Marxism. Was the cultural rite of passage of the youth that developed in the 1960s and the 1970s a healthy thing or a bad thing? Taken as a whole, would it be better that it hadn’t happened, as Himelfarb, Dixson, McGuiness, etc clearly believe?
For my part, I grew up in the 1950s and I assert that life is considerably better now, in most of the areas influenced by the cultural changes of the 1960s and the 1970s.
Was our assault on the entrenched conservative features of the existing education system a good thing? Despite problems that emerged later, I regard the 1960s and 1970s criticism, and partial demolition, of conservative educational practices, as a healthy and necessary development. I would be very interested in your views on these matters, and I am inclined to take your views on such things pretty seriously, because you have a good deal of experience in education, and your current views, whatever they are, will obviously have considerable basis in your life experience.
The 1960s witnessed a major rebellion against conservative authorities in a series of areas of life and social, cultural and political activity. Despite some of the absurdities and contradictions in this rebellion, this questioning of established authorities was entirely healthy.
When I left school in the 1950s, as part of my own intellectual enquiry and exploration, I read a book by Nicholas Berdyaev, a socialist religious philosopher in the Russian Orthodox tradition, and an opponent of Bolshevism. I wasn’t persuaded by his bleak hostility to the Bolsheviks, but one thing that stuck in my mind from his book was an incidental quote he used from the Russian Narodnik poet, Nekrasov, which ran something like this:
Away from the tumult and shouting,
From the hands that are grimy with blood,
Away to the camp of the outlawed,
Who struggle and perish for love.
That fragment of poetry from the heroic Narodniks of 1870s Russia, who among other things managed to assassinate one of the worst Czars, captured my mood as a young person as I was moving over to the left in politics. In the 1960s and the 1970s, along with the saying from Walt Whitman above, that kind of mood acquired an almost mass force among young people in many countries, including Australia.
The persistence of critical and sceptical attitudes towards traditional authorities among some of the youth, inherited from the 1960s and the 1970s, is what neoconservatives most loathe about the influence of this period. In my view, such a critical outlook on the world was the healthiest aspect of that period, and its most useful legacy.
Reviewing Keith’s books and articles as part of this exercise, I have become very conscious of his preoccupation with what he perceives to be his position as an academic outsider, into which he obviously feels he has been thrust by postmodernist academic mafias.
I’m not entirely out of sympathy with his state of mind. I have often been something of an outsider on the liberal left myself, by reason of an independent stance. I have usually been in the sharpest opposition to the entrenched bureaucracies, liberal, labour reformist and Stalinist, that dominate the labour movement and a lot of intellectual life.
Therefore I know a bit how he feels in these matters. The realism of a lot of Keith’s earlier journalism, when he was on the left, when he used to take the mickey out of a number of the more ridiculous middle-class liberal, leftist fashions, greatly appealed to me. I share his earlier affection for E.P. Thompson’s magnificent pedagogic demolition of the Stalinist Althusser, for instance, and I also share his realistic approach to the popular culture in his media book, etc.
Despite what I have just written, I have no inclination to follow Keith Windschuttle in his conversion to a small sect, the very strange sect of North American neoconservatism. In one of his recent articles, talking about the New York intellectuals, he mentions that many of them became Trotskyists, and then he makes a major distinction between the US and Australia, where he says Trotskyists are ridiculous, and have a reputation for being squabbling sects.
Well, he is doing a bit of a dis-service to Australian labour movement and intellectual history, particularly Sydney history. One of the very distinctive things about Sydney, and the left in Sydney, is that it has a somewhat different tradition to the liberal and semi-Stalinist tradition of the Melbourne left. In Sydney in the 1930s quite a few significant personalities such as John Anderson, Gil and Edna Roper, Nick Origlass, Laurie Short, and Edna and Jack Ryan, broke with Stalinism and all of them, for a while (some for very long periods like Short and Origlass) became Trotskyists.
The Trotskyists gave as good as they got in battles in the labour movement in Sydney. For instance, Nick Origlass and Laurie Short led the successful mass strike, which commenced at Morts Dock shipyard during World War II, in defence of the right of the rank and file to run the affairs of the Balmain Ironworkers Union, rather than the Stalinist bureaucracy in the national office.
The then Trotskyist Gil Roper, an activist in the printing union, was the initiator of the actions that led to the great strike of printers in 1944, which launched the struggle for the 40-hour work week, and the Trotskyist Allan Thistlethwaite, at Bunnerong Power Station, led the extension to other industries of that industrial action for the 40-hour week. The Sydney Trotskyists had a big part in the ultimate achievement of the 40-hour week, which was finally enshrined in legislation in 1947.
After his later evolution into a right-winger, Short became the dominant figure in the very important Ironworkers Union and an important figure in the ALP right wing.
On a slightly different front, John Anderson, the philosophy professor at Sydney University, emerged as a major indigenous Australian philosopher and his school of Andersonian Realism became a powerful intellectual and cultural force. In Sydney in the 1940s and the 1950s, the Stalinists were still the most powerful force on the left, but anti-Stalinist influences like the Trotskyists, the Andersonians — and the Andersonian left dissidents, the Libertarians — were also influential, and they often contested the Stalinists at important moments.
When the left began to leap ahead again in influence in Australia in the middle 1960s, the left in Sydney was the least influenced by Stalinism, and the most influenced by conscious anti-Stalinists. The Vietnam Action Committee, of which I was one of the initiators and the secretary, was a deliberate initiative by the anti-Stalinist current in the Sydney left, and it rapidly became the most influential radical influence on the Vietnam antiwar movement and the rebellious youth in Sydney.
Trotskyists and Libertarians may have spent a fair amount of their time squabbling among themselves, but they had a powerful influence on developments in the 1960s and 1970s.
Keith should read Hall Greenland’s biography of Nick Origlass, Susanna Short’s biography of her father,Laurie Short, the book about the Libertarian Push, Sex and Anarchy, by Anne Coombs, Brian Kennedy’s biography of John Anderson, A Passion to Oppose and several books on the Vietnam protest movement.
It suits Keith now to be superior to the local Trotskyists who he says have such a lousy reputation, but as a matter of fact, there is still a very substantial leftist mood and influence among youth in Australia, and these days after the unlamented death of Stalinism, almost all the influences on young socialists here ultimately derive from the Sydney Trotskyist and Libertarian traditions.
Here in Australia, in our own modest, possibly provincial,way we were just as affected by the big questions of the 20th century as were the New York intellectuals.
I have a certain amount of sympathy with Keith’s obvious desire to take stock of the world and be understood. With Keith at 57 years old, and me at 63, it is entirely human to want to make some ultimate sense out of one’s life. A bit like Keith, I have in the last couple of years suddenly been driven by some demon of self-explanation, and I have produced already more than 200,000 words of a book, part memoir, and part social theory, of which this document forms a part.
I suspect that my bedroom and your study may look pretty much alike, both being piled high with the journals and books that we use in the course of our intellectual investigations and our writing.
As you get to our age, you no longer think you will live forever, or even that necessarily your mind will remain completely intact. Look at poor Iris Murdoch! The desire for clarity and for one’s ideas to be understood at this point in life is very real.
What I don’t completely understand is the emotional urgency and power of Keith Windschuttle’s conversion to neoconservatism. Over the last few months, as I have been reading your unusual articles in Quadrant, I’ve been asking different mutual acquaintances what they consider has carried Keith in this strange direction.
Some conventional liberal leftists, the worst ones, with obvious bad faith, tend just to write you off with a malicious kind of undertone, that “Keith was always a bit of an outsider” (to their prejudices, obviously). I have even heard the ludicrously reductionist dismissal, “Oh, Keith Windschuttle, he got rich”.
This antagonism from the most conventional, banal, liberal leftists doesn’t impress me one little bit. I dismiss their reductionist view completely. As I remember it, Keith and Liz were already pretty comfortable materially when Keith wrote, for instance, the very relaxed and civilised Marxist book on unemployment in 1979, which he dedicated to Liz’s enthusiasm for that project. I seem to remember that you used to contribute out of your own pockets quite large sums of money to projects like the Old Mole and the Women and Labor Conferences.
Crude reductionism about Keith getting rich, seems pretty stupid to me. Nevertheless, your dramatic change in political outlook is still an enigma. It is rather interesting that in several places you now express great anger against affluent people who support leftist causes. But that’s exactly what you used to do yourself.
From my point of view, being willing to shell out a bit of what the world has given you in the interests of improving the lot of the underprivileged, which is no doubt how these leftists perceive their current material contributions, is something that makes some people a bit different to many who are only ever concerned about their own immediate interests. Apparently now, from your point of view, only conservative causes are worthy of material support, which is pretty sad.
I got another insight into your changed outlook from one of our mutual friends who attended a party at your house a while back. He said that it was a rather impressive social event. The Premier was there, McGuiness, Peter Coleman and other Quadrant personalities were there, along with assorted judges, ALP right-wing movers and shakers, and business personalities from the big end of town.
The political discussion at the party, of which there was quite a lot, was in a thoroughly self-satisfied right-wing framework. You were naturally a kind of luminary at the gathering, and the centre of these discussions, as the resident expert on leftist politics (being now properly disillusioned).
Having moved, or to some extent being driven by postmodernists, out of any cultural or emotional sympathy with the left, it’s obviously quite human for you to adopt views that are currently acceptable in more powerful and influential quarters. Moving in the circles of the great and powerful can be a more potent intellectual aphrodisiac than any crude improvement in material circumstances, particularly for somebody who has smarted under the feeling of being an outsider.
Keith’s very real preoccupation with the outsider status forced on him is pretty human, and is obviously intertwined with the issue of finding an audience, which is one faced by any serious creative writer or social theorist. In his quest for an audience, I think Keith has made the most serious error of judgment possible — his dramatic shift to the right.
The paradoxical thing is that the books Keith wrote when he was still mainly on the left, the unemployment book, and the media book, were quite extraordinary publishing successes for serious books of that type. They both appear to have sold something approaching 40,000 copies. Most people in the book trade, if they have any powers of observation, will report to you, what is almost a book-trade truism, that serious books of politics, history and social theory sell far better if they are located on the left of the spectrum, than do right-wing books.
I don’t like being the bearer of bad tidings to Keith all that much, but that is still the situation, even despite the ostensible shift of the overt political culture to the right. Any bookseller, new or secondhand, will tell you, right now, the only political or social theory books that sell at all are those on the left, and even they don’t sell as well as they used to.
The only exception to this rule, and a spectacular one, was Paul Sheehan’s rabidly populist Amongst the Barbarians, which was a runaway bestseller two years ago. Universal anecdotal evidence from booksellers was that it sold extraordinarily well to grey-haired, middle-class Anglo-Australians in the outer suburbs and the country, and that its sales were almost totally driven by word of mouth, produced by intense and rabid support from right-wing populist talkback radio commentators.
Amongst the Barbarians was populist, tabloid journalism in book form, and it was a great success with the audience that can be assembled in a tabloid way. However, every book that has tried to emulate it, that has been predominantly social theory, like Miriam Dixson’s book, Michael O’Connor’s book, and Katharine Betts’s book, have had relatively small sales, even despite the fact that they’ve got quite a lot of publicity. The Paul Sheehan audience seems only to respond to thoroughly tabloid books.
The book of yours, Keith, that I like the most, The Killing of History, probably suffered, in sales, from the problem that some of the “leftist” audience was uneasy about it, by reason of their own fairly dopey fashion prejudices. I have the strong feeling that although right-wing opinion makers will praise new books of conservative social theory that you may produce, these new books will have sales like those of Dixson, O’Connor and Betts, which also got good press from right-wing pundits but didn’t sell very well.
You obviously passionately desire, like any other serious social theorist, including me, an audience of paying customers for your ideas, and consequently for your books. Unfortunately, you may find that in the course of your dramatic shift to the right your paying audience for books may have shrunk, or just about vanished!
In this context, I must mention Mark Uhlmann’s novella, A Wander in the Eternal Colony. After reading Peter Kocan’s lurid Quadrant review, I rang around a number of booksellers, none of whom had heard of the book. I then asked my friends at Glebe Books to get it in for me, and they found that Ginninderra Press appeared to be a self-publishing enterprise by the man himself, from Canberra, and the computer showed that he charged a surcharge unless you ordered five copies.
I said maybe they should get the five, as it seemed from the Quadrant review like a significant right-wing book. Having got the book, I have a feeling they may now hate me if they did get the five copies. It turns out to be a 180-page novella in which almost nothing of importance happens. It is a typical young man’s book, a kind of provincial Australian imitation of Celine.
This long short story is in the introspective, grunge-style popular a couple of years ago among people doing university creative writing courses, and that predominated for a while in university literary magazines. A few grunge novels were published commercially in Australia, but almost all of them flopped.
The protagonist in the novel, a completely self-absorbed, cantankerous, semi-educated, Anglo dickhead, wanders around the eastern suburbs of Sydney, Newtown, Canberra, the South Coast of NSW and Melbourne in a constant alcoholic haze, growling to himself about various small, universally hostile encounters he has with cultural outsiders to the true, Anglo Australia, (with which he identifies himself).
Every time he surfaces, quite frequently after vomiting somewhere, he seems to see members of the “New Class”, and other demons “taking over Australia”. Early on he screws a mauve-haired woman interested in the occult. Once. That’s the sex interest. An old friend tells him an anecdote about a courageous Katharine Betts-like academic female opponent of multiculturalism and migration being howled down by “malicious trendoids” at an academic conference.
Every time he emerges from his alcoholic confusion, he sees some small street scene that confirms his hysteria about trendoids and aliens taking over everywhere, particularly vicious old Sydney Town. After a big bender in Melbourne, he feels rather threatened by some migrants on a train, and eventually collapses from the grog in Treasury Gardens. When he wakes up in the morning, he decides to change his life, and offer his intellectual services to the Graeme Campbell politician figure in the book to assist this politician to defeat the “New Class”, assorted aliens, and other demons who are menacing Australia. End of story.
The Kocan review of Uhlmann’s book in Quadrant is actually rather misleading, in that Kocan manages to reprint in a small review about two thirds of the only real political action or comment that takes place in an 180-page book, other than the protagonist's constant alcoholic growling, often at shadows in his own mind, as in the last chapter of the book.
At an intellectual level, I still don’t entirely understand Keith Windschuttle’s shift. I have lived through the events of the past 10 years since the spectacular final demise of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. Like anyone else on the left who is not entirely brain-dead or embedded in left politics as some kind of eschatological religion, I have been forced by changing circumstances to examine all aspects, including the core aspects, of my own political beliefs.
I haven’t really been tempted to abandon them. After all, I became a left-winger when socialist views were even more unfashionable than they are now — in the early 1950s. I’ve lived through periods like this before.
It always seemed stupid to me to moralise, as some liberal leftists do, about the way people like Koestler and Orwell swung over to the right in the 1940s and the 1950s, reacting against the ruthless and brutal power of Stalinism. Such semi-Stalinist, liberal moralising against Koestler and Orwell has always appeared to me dishonest humbug.
After all, George Orwell actually saw many of his generation of independent leftists murdered by the Stalinists in Spain. Arthur Koestler had many contemporaries murdered by Stalinism, and his brother-in-law, Alex Weissberg, locked up in the Gulag for nearly 20 years.
That many New York Intellectuals and other leftists shifted to the right in the 1950s is hardly surprising either. Many of them were acquainted with the crimes of Stalinism at first hand, through the experiences of immediate contemporaries who came from countries where Stalinism had taken political power, and many of these people were traumatised by those experiences.
However, when most of Keith’s and my generation came into left-wing politics we were fairly familiar with all this, or we should have been if we were even half-literate or observant. Most of us did not fall in love with Stalinism at all, and the kind of leftism that most of us developed and fought for was solidly opposed to Stalinism.
Speaking for myself, from about 1956 on, I was always a belligerent opponent of the leadership of the Stalinist states and of Stalinism as an ideology. I was never thereafter tempted by the worship of the power that the Stalinist states represented, although some leftists were.
I’m mystified by the almost religious character of Keith’s conversion to the North American neoconservative political sect. The feeble proposition that he was, in the past, deceived by Stalinism concealed in the novels of John Steinbeck, seems totally ludicrous. For that to be the primary impulse behind Keith’s initial radicalisation in the 1960s, he would have had to be blind and deaf, and the Keith I remember from those times was anything but blind.
From where I sit, the overthrow of Stalinism in Eastern Europe in 1989 was a clearing of the decks, in historical and political terms. It doesn’t surprise me that some leftists who, even at that late date, may have had illusions about the Stalinist regimes, should have their beliefs shattered by those events.
It does surprise me that a civilised and knowledgeable anti-Stalinist leftist like Keith should so obviously be influenced by the overthrow of the Stalinist power that his own framework of socialist beliefs should finally disintegrate.
Obviously Keith’s academic conflict with postmodernism has had a major instrumental role, leading up to his rather spectacular shift to the right. I share his anger about the cultural devastation caused by postmodernism. When Keith wrote the book The Killing of History, he did so from the standpoint of defending the tradition of the Western Enlightenment against the madness of the new High Theory.
In Keith’s recent writings, however, a shift is apparent. He appears to have abdicated the defence of the Western Enlightenment in favour of the view held by most of his US neoconservative allies that the Enlightenment was actually the original source of the “corruption” of the Western intellectual tradition, to which they are opposed.
I reject this anti-Enlightenment point of view. I continue to defend the Enlightenment against both postmodernists and neoconservatives.
Associated with this intellectual problem, that of the Western Enlightenment, is another issue. This is the intense antagonism that neoconservatives, including Keith, have to Edward Said and his useful notion of “orientalism”. They make a big point, in which there is an element of truth, that the dominant part of the Western intellectual tradition comes from Europe and the early Middle East.
They counterpose the “Greco Roman” and “Judeo Christian” cultural traditions to the rest of the world of human culture, and they assert that all good things in philosophy, religion, history and science are located in this specific Western cultural framework.
It is from this standpoint that they ridicule Edward Said and cultural relativists who give weight to the contributions of other cultures outside this “Western” intellectual tradition. In the sphere of economics they adopt the views of several theorists like David Landes and Jared Diamond, who assert that the development and dominance of Western capitalism as an economic force is intimately tied up with its initial development within this “Western” framework.
This kind of thing reaches a kind of reductio ad absurdum in Gertrude Himelfarb’s celebration of the conservative Anglo cultural tradition in the US. In Australia, Miriam Dixson has elaborated a small-minded provincial “British” Australian version of the same kind of thing in her reification of an invented “Anglo Celtic core culture”.
On the face of it, there is some truth in the bald assertion that most of the philosophical and scientific developments that dominate the modern world have emerged within this allegedly hegemonic Western cultural tradition. Capitalism, modern socialism, most schools of philosophy, some schools of religion and most dominant scientific developments, can be seen in this way, but not all.
There are some major facts that contradict the view that all good things come out of the West. For instance, the independent development of science and civilisation in China, and the rich Islamic philosophical and scientific flowering in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, from about the 8th to the 12th centuries.
Nevertheless, even taking those things into account, Windschuttle and company still have a bit of justification for locating many important developments in the framework of this “Western” intellectual and cultural continuum. It is important to note, however, that, in this construction, they have already defined the outlines of the cultural framework to suit themselves. There are different ways of viewing the evolution of civilisation, even if you accept some of their version.
Trotsky in the 1930s elaborated and developed the Marxist concept of combined and uneven development. One aspect of this theory included the basic idea that, after modern capitalism had developed in the major imperialist countries, subsequent episodes of capitalist development in underdeveloped countries often take over as a whole certain features of capitalism without laboriously going through every stage and detail of independent development. In this sense, the initial evolution of the capitalist social form in Western Europe, was circumstantial, rather than something dictated by the so-called “unique” superiority of Western civilisation.
The evolution of Western civilisation involved, particularly in the past 300 years, the rapid expansion of different empires. The Spanish who grabbed the gold and silver from the newly discovered Americas, rapidly developed an empire. The British, Dutch, French and Portuguese were a little slower off the mark, but they, in their turn also quickly conquered empires, and eclipsed the Spaniards, who failed to develop trade and industry, partly because their initial privileged access to the gold and silver of the Indies made them lazy.
It’s a rather superficial and pedantic point to ascribe these successes in empire building to some “superiority” of the Western cultural tradition, or to the “intrinsic superiority” of the Christian religion, or even as some egotistical English Evangelical Protestants do, to God’s reward to the British who practiced the Protestant variant of Christianity.
This whole process of imperialist division of the world was, in this self-serving construction, the major flowering of Western civilisation. However, almost immediately, imperialism produced its opposite, which was the continual rebellion of the peripheral and colonised peoples, even in Europe (like the Irish and other small nationalities) and more spectacularly, later of the Indians, Chinese, Latin Americans and others.
It is certainly true that, as revolution against colonial rule developed, even the people in colonial countries took up ideas that originated first in Europe with the French Revolution, and were later developed in Europe by Marx and Lenin. However, in all the major non-European countries, these ideas intertwined with existing indigenous cultural traditions.
Mao Tse Tung in China was influenced both by Marx and Lenin, and also by the traditional Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber and by many things out of China’s indigenous cultural tradition, like the Tai Ping and other peasant uprisings, and the political strategies of particular emperors, and the strategic ideas of Chuang Tzu.
Similarly, Ghandi in India was influenced both by the Western Enlightenment and native Indian cultural traditions. The same applies in Latin America, where modern rebels take up cultural and ideological motifs from the different traditional Indian cultures like the Incas, the Mayas and the Aztecs.
When I was very young, my autodidact, Marxist, Langite school teacher father used to explain British imperialism to me by using the example of India. He said that the British carved up the world, with other European powers, and that the British East India Company made an enormous fortune in the course of conquering Bengal and Bombay.
To make this fortune, however, they needed Indians as clerks, and they therefore had to teach them to read and write English, and even give them some technical education so that they could function in the British mercantile system. Those trained clerks then often emerged as the leaders of the struggle against the imperialism of the British who had trained them.
My Catholic Marxist father’s crude but colourful sketch of British imperialism, and the development of its opposite in the struggle for national independence, made an indelible impression on my young mind. This construction fits well with a concrete understanding of Trotsky’s combined and uneven development, which is a much more useful way of looking at world history and the development of world culture, than some sanctimonious and self-serving assertion of the “unique importance of the Western cultural tradition”.
It is true that the exaggerated cultural relativism of many high theorists and postmodernists is absurd, but even more intellectually destructive is the counter-revolution of neoconservatives in the cultural sphere, in which they give a totally conservative spin to what they narrowly define as the “Western” cultural tradition, and ridicule the significance of elements that come from other cultures.
The useful features of the Western Enlightenment have to be defended, both against postmodern high theory and against the neoconservative counter-revolution, particularly against the attack on multiculturalism, which is an intellectual exercise in reinforcing the most reactionary aspects of traditional Western culture.
The debate about cultural relativism and the “Western” cultural tradition, raises the question of the broad sweep of human history, about which there is currently considerable discussion and debate.
I have been studying this debate, and I think my conclusions have a big bearing on the question of cultural relativism. On the broad sweep of history, I have found the following rather useful: Jared Diamond and his book Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 12,000 Years; the The Ascent of Man and The Western Intellectual Tradition by Jacob Bronowski; African Exodus by Chris Stringer and Robin McKie; the books of Immanuel Wallerstein; the works of Braudel and the Annales School; Stephen Oppenheimer’s important book, Eden in the East; David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations; and Millennium by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. The “Western” political thrust of Diamond and Landes is a bit irritating to me, but nevertheless, their detailed narratives are very useful if you discount their cultural bias.
The out-of-Africa theory of human origins is now substantially confirmed by genetic research. The body of genetic evidence suggests that the modern human species evolved from a very small group of proto-humans in the African savannah about 120,000 years ago. All humans on the planet are ultimately descended from that small group. Therefore, this relatively recent start of the story of the modern human race commenced with a decisive evolutionary adaptation in tropical Africa. About 60,000 years ago some humans, the ancestors of the Australian Aboriginals and the Melanesians, developed sufficient maritime skills to manoeuvre boats or rafts across the Wallace Line, the 80-kilometre gap between the South-East Asian land mass and the Australasian continent of Sahul, which was another major leap in human affairs, a long way from Europe.
Stephen Oppenheimer, in Eden in the East, has marshalled substantial evidence, from ancient myths, from archaeology, from linguistic analysis, and from genetics, that the first agricultural and maritime cultures probably developed on the now-drowned land mass of South-East Asia. Such things as the wide spread of the Austronesian language from Madagascar in the Indian Ocean near Africa, to Easter Island in the far Pacific, and the equally wide spread of the powerful outrigger canoe or ship, from Madagascar and the Red Sea, to Easter Island, New Zealand and Hawaii, combined with the 10,000-year antiquity of agriculture in New Guinea, and genetic analysis, all suggest that the drowned maritime and agricultural cultures in South-East Asia were probably the earliest.
Of all the books listed at the start of this small section, Millennium is perhaps the most useful in the context of this discussion, because, by its internal construction, it takes you through the 1000 years, in a careful, colourful way, for all major civilisations on the planet. It illustrates the interactions between those civilisations. For instance, many of the discoveries of Chinese civilisation were carried to Europe and became an important part of the mercantile and industrial revolution in Europe.
The historical approach adopted in Millennium, which also makes very striking use of illustrations, is, in itself, an almost complete demolition of the Eurocentric view of neoconservatives. When you add to the approach to modern history adopted in Millennium an overview of the real history of homo sapiens sapiens, for the past 120,000 years or so, illuminated by the recent discoveries in genetics, linguistics and archaeology, your narrowly Eurocentric, righteously Protestant, “all good things come out of the West”, historical approach, begins to look eccentric and bizarre, compared with a broadly based history of the whole human species and all civilisations and cultures.
I share Keith Windschuttle’s informed disbelief in most aspects of postmodernism in the humanities. I don’t share his lack of a sense of proportion as to who ultimately holds power in the real world.
In a throwaway aside Keith asserts that Edward Said, as a tenured academic in a North American university, is one of the most powerful and privileged people on earth. I think that view is totally loopy.
The really powerful and privileged people on earth are the billionaires who dominate finance capital and the ruling economic circles in the capitalist world. It is quite mad to equate in terms of power, a tenured academic like Edward Said, even if he has some privileges, with, say, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Packer or even Frank Lowy or Harry Triguboff. The economic ruling class still rules, and most tenured academics are only their servants. (Some tenured academics like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky even display a significant amount of political independence from the capitalist ruling class, which seems to infuriate Keith nowadays.)
Many neoconservatives engage in extraordinary demagogy about an alleged “New Class”, of technically trained people, on whom they concentrate their attacks, and they skate over the real power of the economic ruling class. Keith has become so disoriented by his anger at the postmodernist fashion currently dominant in universities that he appears to think it is universities that largely run society, which is obvious nonsense. The real ruling class of billionaires with enormous economic power have the most influence in capitalist societies, and while they do influence universities, that is incidental to their primary economic power.
The postmodernist, high theory plague is one of the intellectual fashions that erupt from time to time in universities. It will pass, as all such academic fashions pass eventually. This one will, in my view, be replaced fairly rapidly by other academic fashions. It’s very sad that a serious socialist intellectual, like Keith once was, should be so disoriented by the impact of postmodernism, that he has made his peace with the real ruling class in capitalist society!
The Cromwellian revolution in England, which swept away many feudal remnants, was followed by a period of restoration and reaction. The great French Revolution, which swept away the old order in France, and prefigured the development of bourgeois democracy and the modern mercantile capitalist system, was also followed by a Napoleonic Thermidor, and a vicious royalist reaction in 1815. In both these subsequent periods of reaction, many of those who had supported these revolutions became disillusioned with revolution.
Examples of this phenomenon after the French Revolution were Beethoven and Wordsworth. As we now know, the disillusionment of those who rejected those past revolutions during the periods of restorations after them was just a bit premature, and both those revolutions, viewed historically, were decisive events in the replacement of feudalism by the system of mercantile and industrial capitalism, which was, in its time, so revolutionary, viewed in a longer historical framework and context.
It is my profound conviction that the Russian Revolution will be viewed like the French Revolution and the Cromwellian Revolution by historians, say, in 2017, the hundredth anniversary of that event. The Paris Commune of 1871, and the Bolsheviks “storming Heaven” in 1917, and thereafter holding political power on behalf of the working class for about 10 years before Stalin’s vicious Thermidor developed in the late 1920s, will in the long view of history, be seen as the opening shots in a long, contradictory, protracted and uneven process of social revolution that will culminate eventually in socialism.
After all, this is the kind of path that the development of modern capitalism also followed. I’m saddened that someone with as much knowledge of history as Keith Windschuttle can’t look at history in a broader, more realistic, historical framework than he appears to. Keith Windschuttle’s book on unemployment stands the test of time, and even of his own possible repudiation, as a statement of socialist principles, still appropriate in the year 2000.
Almost every second box of books that I buy from people who have studied the social sciences in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s, seems to me to contain a well-thumbed, thoroughly annotated copy of Windschuttle’s blue Australian Penguin paperback, Unemployment, published in 1979. It appears to have gone into about five reprints.
The copies that I buy have been very thoroughly annotated, often by several generations of students. If the somersault in Keith Windschuttle’s political outlook is valid, and the book on unemployment is basically wrong, he is in significant danger of facing a “class action” by many thousands of these students, who were presumably disoriented by this book!
For reasons of convenience, this book sits in a section of my Australian Labor Movement area, along with other small-format books, and contemporary Australian Penguins of the same format and roughly the same vintage. They were all part of a bold and enlightening program of Australian publishing by Penguin in the Brian Johns era — the 1970s and the 1980s.
Three other Penguins with blue spines sit in my section, all best-sellers in their time, A New Britannia by Humphrey McQueen, in retrospect a rather wrong-headed book, Miriam Dixson’s The Real Matildas, also extremely flawed because of its prejudiced Anglo view of Irish women in Australia, and the collection Australian Capitalism edited by Doug Kirsner and John Playford, which is now a rather collectible curiosity for several reasons.
The introductory essay by Kirsner is one of the most obscure pieces of Australian social theory ever published. The book contains a vintage piece by Humphrey McQueen exposing Laborism, and leftist essays by Bob Cattley and John Playford, who have both joined you in your intellectual odyssey over to the neoconservative right.
Keith’s book is the only one of the four that stands the test of time, and on rereading it I’m struck by how useful it was then and how pertinent it still is. The chapter headings are:
In the introduction, Windschuttle says:
So the first debt I would like to acknowledge here is to those few people in the media who were willing to take up this unfashionable issue in those traumatic years in 1975-6 — the New Journalist collective (Michael Symons, David Dale and Lindsay Foyle), the people at ABC radio (Special Projects, Current Affairs, 2JJ and Young People’s Programs) and Peter Manning who published a series of my articles in Nation Review when other editors wouldn’t.
This experience underlines, in a small way, how much we need to maintain a viable alternative press and an independent broadcasting system …
The real researchers, though, have been the ones who have known the economic crisis at first hand and I’m particularly grateful to those people who gave me information and anecdotes about their experiences on the dole, especially Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette. Above all, I’m indebted to Liz Windschuttle who suggested I write the series of articles that led to this book, who read and criticised the manuscript and who took on most of our domestic work to give me time to write it … In one sense, this book is a social history of the economic crisis of the late 1970s, a view of contemporary society from an unflattering angle.
In another sense, the book is a study in the sociology of unemployment. It examines the general question of the relation between society and work by looking at the effects of lack of employment. This perspective shows how important work is to society. Work and its absence emerge as the crucial elements in determining the general degree of social cohesion, the nature of ideology, the state of health, the condition of family life and the forms of social control. In theoretical terms, the book is a partial demonstration of the truth of the traditional Marxist claim that the relations of production constitute the real base or foundation of society from which derive that society’s cultural and institutional forms (or superstructure). In modern Australia, the workplace is the central, defining institution of society.
The main factor that mediates between the lives of individuals and the wider society is the work ethic. Work defines people’s status, their incomes, their personal identity. It conditions people to accept and act within these definitions. The work ethic forms the basis of another purpose of this book — to provide a moral critique of capitalism. Capitalism is a system that defines humanity by work but denies work to large numbers of people. Personal trauma and social malaise follow inevitably. Unemployment reveals this system as basically inhuman …
This is, finally, a political tract. It is an attempt to find solutions to unemployment, an attempt that can only be resolved at the political level. None of the solutions anyone has yet offered within the framework of the present system has much hope of working. No economic policies within the current imagination of our major political parties promise to solve the problem. The economic strategy of the Liberal government has made unemployment worse and an overturn of these policies will offer some relief, but of a limited kind only. We should realise that none of the policies currently being urged on the government — no manpower planning, no job sharing, no shorter hours, no wage cuts, not even economic recovery at present or in the foreseeable future — will deliver full employment in our capitalist economy. Only a socialist society can guarantee jobs for all. This does not mean, however, that we have to await a final revolutionary overthrow of capitalism before anything substantial can be done about unemployment. Some Australian trade unionists, environmentalists and others are already working on radical strategies to expand the number of jobs available. Their actions to extend workers’ control of industry and to develop new forms of alternative technology form part of a burgeoning movement aiming both to increase employment opportunities now, and to advance the struggle for a future socialist society. These developments contain the first glimmer of an answer to the critical political question of our time — how to make social change that avoids environmentally destructive economic growth …
Many people wrongly believe that Marx predicted that eventually there would come a crisis or depression so deep that capitalism would break down irretrievably. This is not so. Marx saw crises as cleansing and renewing processes. They knocked out old, inefficient firms and paved the way for the introduction of new plant and equipment. The whole society would thus gain a more efficient, more profitably industrial base from which to start recovery anew. Productivity and profits could be re-established at new higher rates. This process of renewal, however, saw the progressive centralisation of capital. Today, centralisation has produced the giant multinational corporations whose income and power rival that of nation states. The collapse of capitalism was not something that was guaranteed by the recurrent crises of capitalist production. Rather, it was something to be resolved on the political level. The capitalist system provided the framework but, within it, people made their own history …
On the Marxist view of economic crises, there is no one set of individuals to ‘blame’ for either recession or unemployment. It was not the fault of mismanagement by Whitlam’s Labor government, or of Liberal governments, for that matter. Nor can workers be blamed for making wage claims. Nor, in fact, is there much point in blaming employers as individuals for trying to survive by making more profits. It is rather the employers’ system, capitalism, that is at fault. Until that system has gone, crises will remain. This is not to say that the actions of employers, workers and governments are irrelevant. On the contrary. The struggle between employers as a class and workers as a class to determine the relative shares of national income is one factor in determining the level of profitability. The deflationary economic policies of the Fraser government have deepened the recession. The government is an important part of the economy and could do much more to stimulate activity within it and thus generate more jobs. But the important point about the capitalist economy is that it is not subject to the control of any one group. It is based on individual decisions made by thousands of entrepreneurs all pursuing their own profit ends. Our capitalist economy is unplanned and unplannable. Unemployment is inevitable under capitalism …
In the nineteenth century and up to 1917, when socialists got on to soapboxes or sat down to write pamphlets, most of them felt compelled to give some idea of the sort of socialism they envisaged. Some went to the most elaborate lengths and wrote utopian novels about life in the socialist future. Others made do with a few sentences. But all felt the obligation to combine a critique of capitalist society with comments on the political tactics and strategy to overcome it, plus a vision of the new society. After 1917, the vision of socialism was regarded as unnecessary. One simply pointed to the USSR and reeled off the statistics from the five-year plans. The revelations about Stalin in 1956 undermined this position and left socialists in the West without any concrete goals to point to. It is now fashionable to say one cannot offer a blueprint and that the shape of the future society will be forged by the struggle to attain it. However, this should be regarded as less than satisfactory, and some of the old obligations ought to be revived. From this study of unemployment, it is possible to see some of the qualities of a socialist society at least in their negation as social problems under capitalism. Work should no longer be a high-pressure activity enforced by a variety of social punishments. People should not be socialised to put themselves under chronic stress in order to produce. It should not be possible for one person to threaten another’s whole individual integrity by having the power to give him or her the sack. The barriers separating work from home and children should be broken down. Power should be decentralised both in the local community, to allow the prevention of the remaining social problems, and in the workplace, to provide the democratic basis of the whole social structure. Men and women should work about half as much as they do now, in positions that offer both creativity and responsibility for community well-being.
These goals are not utopian or unthinkable. A small number of people in capitalist society enjoy many of them already. But their privilege is at the expense of the rest of us. The goals should be universalised. Social power and job satisfaction should be shared by all.
Some of its conclusions:
- Australia is entering an era of long-term economic stagnation marked by the decline and probably fall of the indigenous manufacturing industry. Unemployment will remain high until at least the 1990s.
- Technological innovation, once the harbinger of social progress, today produces little for most people but a trail of redundant jobs and discarded skills.
- The crisis has fallen most heavily on youth who have become the most disadvantaged, disillusioned and abused generation this century. The incidence of drug-taking, alcoholism and other forms of escapist behaviour among young people has, as a result, risen abruptly.
- Unemployment among adult heads of families, particularly migrant families, has increased sharply as the recession has deepened. The slump has been a major contributor to the accelerating breakdown of the family and the falling birth rate. It is a main source of domestic violence.
- Unemployment is an important cause of crime.
- Some of our key health indicators are deteriorating rapidly. The unemployed are subject to high rates of stress-induced health problems including heart attack, mental illness and suicide. Their children suffer increased rates of infectious disease and infant mortality.
- Our major social institutions have responded to the crisis in ways that either compound the problem or else are largely irrelevant. The Liberal government has denied unemployment payments to large numbers of people legally entitled to them and has launched blitz-type raids on dole recipients. The welfare system has recycled unemployment from one group to another. Medicine has seen its role in terms of individual cures to problems that are of social origin. The news media have persuaded large numbers of Australians that there is no crisis except within the heads of the unemployed themselves. Pressures are being put on the education system to change in directions which would, if implemented, worsen the situation of young people. Programs of social reform for disadvantaged groups, such as women, migrants and the handicapped, which depended upon increasing opportunities in the labour market, have had to be abandoned.
As the chapter headings indicate, Keith’s book is a workmanlike and intelligent description of the impact of unemployment in Australian life in 1979. In the intervening period many things have happened in Australia and the world.
The Australian economy has become more prosperous, but in a wildly speculative way. In this 20 years the rich have certainly got richer and some of the top end of the middle class have got richer too. Sydney, in particular, in which we both live, is booming.
Nevertheless, even Sydney still has approximately 5 per cent unemployment, concentrated as it was in 1979 in the Western suburbs. As statisticians with different motives, like the sensible leftist Phil Raskall on the one hand, and the special pleading anti-immigrationists from the Monash Institute on the other, point out, economic divisions in Sydney have widened throughout the period.
The national unemployment figure is, after this whole 20 years of boom and bust prosperity, almost exactly the same, a bit above 7 per cent, as it was when Windschuttle wrote his book. Life for the unemployed, particularly the long-term unemployed, is in fact more grim than it was then, with harsher government pressures on them, which are being further increased even as we speak. Some of the older people Windschuttle talked about in 1979 probably never got a job again in their lives.
If Windschuttle were to rewrite this book in the current setting, he would obviously have to research new material, but his general construction is still valid if you look at the world from the point of view of those who are oppressed in capitalist society.
Keith’s standpoint on these matters may have changed, but his old book remains a surprisingly good model of how to approach the unemployment question. It’s worth noting in passing the moderate and realistic tone adopted by Windschuttle in his book, and the sensible use of Marxist concepts in analysis and construction.
For instance, he points out that Marxism, properly understood, does not involve some apocalyptic view that the capitalist system is going to collapse immediately. There is nothing at all Stalinist about Keith’s book. If anything, it is explicitly anti-Stalinist, and it stands the test of time as the best example of a concrete application of a non-Stalinist Marxism to sociology in the Australian context.
It has to be regarded as a product of Keith’s maturity. He was 37 years old in 1979, so it’s not the product of some wild-eyed young radical. It has clearly had an enormous impact over the past 20 years on class after class of young Australians working in universities and other tertiary institutions, studying the “helping” sciences and preparing themselves for their professional lives.
It is not sufficient for Keith to shrug off this product of his middle years as some youthful peccadillo produced as a result of “Marxist indoctrination from John Steinbeck”. He really has an intellectual obligation, if he now thinks that book is false and should be repudiated, to give us a detailed account of the defects in the research, or in his essential approach to the question, in order to innoculate us against such strangeness in the future.
For my part, I don’t believe he can do that. The specific predictions made in Keith’s book have, in their main thrust, all been fulfilled. The decline of manufacturing industry has continued and increased, and the deskilling of what is left of the industrial workforce has marched on apace. Many of the new jobs created have been in less skilled areas, although the growth of the computer industry has required an expansion of computer skills and training.
Keith Windschuttle, the relaxed, civilised and careful Marxist analyst of 1979 was also a pretty good prophet. One doubts that his newly acquired neo-onservative ideology will be as socially useful as his previous Marxist outlook, or as effective as a tool for the prediction of future developments.
In his important book on the media, reprinted four times in the 1980s, Keith has a useful and intelligent analysis of the editorial response of the Financial Review, under Paddy McGuinness’s then editorship, supporting the Campbell Report, which, in the early 1980s, proposed massive deregulation of the Australian finance sector and further reductions in tariffs.
These policies were later carried out ruthlessly by the Hawke and Keating governments, and have been continued by the Howard government. This whole process has come to be identified under the general rubric of “economic rationalism”. In this attack on the Campbell Report, and McGuinness’s support for it, Windschuttle pointed out that such “globalisation” of the Australian economy wasn’t necessarily inevitable, that it would benefit the interests of finance capital rather than most of Australian society, and that it would lead to the further decline of manufacturing industry.
Yet, a few years later, in the fourth edition of this very popular media book (1988), he becomes just a little bit intellectually schizophrenic. He reprints this chapter, with its incisive criticism of Campbell and McGuinness, but he says, in a new introduction, that his views have changed on this matter, and he now regards the globalisation of the Australian economy as a good thing.
He doesn’t, however, explain how or why it’s a good thing, and why the reasoning in his chapter attacking this globalisation, was wrong. When you look at the way all these changes have enriched the ruling class and contributed to the pauperisation of rural Australia, and the decline of manufacturing industry, one is compelled towards the view that he was right in the first place.
If he thinks now that “economic rationalism” and deregulation is a good thing, he should explain in some detail what he considers to be the benefits of this process. One is left with the impression that our old mate has become a kind of worshipper of the accomplished fact. For many years, obviously, Keith smarted at being treated as a bit of an outsider by a part of the sometimes rather herd-driven liberal left.
Unfortunately, he has achieved a kind of emancipation from this situation in the saddest possible way, by swinging over to a soft landing among important ideologues of the ruling class, the neoconservatives. Keith Windschuttle possibly regards the modern neoconservatives as more reliable and powerful associates than the liberal left, who snubbed him.
Back in the 15th century, right at the commencement of the modern accumulation of capital, prefiguring the development of the capitalist economic and social system in Britain, Sir Thomas More wrote his classic work, Utopia, a kind of allegory savaging the ruling class of his time. (Sir Thomas was intimately familiar with the brutal ethos of the English ruling class. No wonder the greedy, avaricious dictator King Henry VIII later had the courageous and independent-minded More, once Henry’s Chancellor of England, executed for not bowing to his wishes in the matter of the King’s divorce.)
This wonderful quote from a useful book The Age of Plunder, The England of Henry VIII, 1500-1547 by W.G. Hoskins, published by Longmans (1976) seems very relevant in this context. On page 121, Hoskins writes:
The great sacrilege.There is a pregnant sentence in More’s Utopia, written when he was a mature and widely experienced man of 38, which sums up his judgement of the realities that lay behind the facade of government and public attitudes. “When I consider and weigh in my mind all these commonwealths which nowadays anywhere do flourish, so God help me, I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of the commonwealth.” This profound truth remains undiluted in 20th century Britain, and is equally well disguised from public debate. Had More lived into the closing years of Henry VIII, he would have seen his judgment buttressed 1000-fold when the open plunder of the Church began in earnest.
In one of his Quadrant articles, displaying a rather extraordinary apparent amnesia about his own past beliefs and activities, Keith muses ponderously as to why relatively affluent intellectuals in rich, relatively stable capitalist countries, could ever do anything so unwise or ridiculous as to question or oppose the utility or morality of the capitalist system and bourgeois rule. My view is quite different.
Nothing about the history of capitalism as a social system or its current characteristics and evolution, leads me to have any different view of its morality than Thomas More had in the 16th century. Obviously, particularly after the final definitive destruction of the Stalinist aberration, many aspects of socialist theory and the socialist project need re-examination and reworking.
Obviously, Keith Windschuttle and Bob Gould have both been engaged in a reconsideration of these matters, after spending a fair amount of our lives in left-wing activities and ideological argument. After considering these questions at length, I draw quite different conclusions to Keith Windschuttle.
Nothing in the history, or the current conjuncture of the capitalist system leads me to the conclusion that it is morally correct, or that it is likely to be the final form of human society. Personally, I have no desire to shift over to the side of the ruling class.
Despite the obvious current global dominance of the capitalist system, particularly expressed in the present economic dominance of the major surviving imperialist power, the USA, I feel little temptation to climb on the bandwagon of the bourgeoisie, given the enormous instability of this system, and its massive global inhumanity. I have considerable conceptual difficulty in grasping why Keith would wish to make his peace with the ruling class at this stage in his life, and in human history.
It is obvious that in the period since Keith wrote his book on unemployment, the capitalist system has not collapsed, despite three or four major upheavals, the debt crisis in Latin America, the 1988 stockmarket crash, and the Asian crisis. Right now, we are in the middle of perhaps the biggest stock exchange bull market in the history of capitalism, centred mainly on an extraordinary speculative frenzy in shares related to the new technology, computers, the mass media, media technology, and the internet.
While the explosion of these technologies, and the emergence of the global internet do indeed represent a quantum leap in the means of production, nevertheless, the speculative stock exchange boom associated with this leap is following more or less the same pattern as the Louisiana Bubble.
The enormous possibility of global trade and exchange represented by the opening up of the Americas and Asia to European commerce in the 17th century, really was a quantum leap in its time. However, the speculative Louisiana Bubble it produced and the subsequent crash ran far ahead of the actual development of the immediate possibilities available for exploiting this leap in a profitable way.
Exactly the same speculative pattern is developing around the new technology, computers and the internet. The new technological developments are as real as anything, but nevertheless the fantastic speculation in the financial instruments associated with these developments seems to be far outstripping the likelihood of short, medium or even long term profitability for many of the companies being floated. This situation also has extraordinary echoes of the famous speculation in the new radio stocks that was one of the triggers that precipitated the 1929 crash. It is fascinating how history tends to repeat itself in these matters.
The current internet boom is the biggest and broadest and most unbridled speculative boom in the history of capitalism. This boom makes Tulipmania or the Louisiana Bubble look quite modest by comparison. I don’t belong to any school of Marxist doomsayers that says capitalism must inevitably fall over tomorrow morning.
Keith was right to warn against that kind of apocalyptic occupational hazard of Marxism in his 1979 unemployment book. Nevertheless, most observers of the modern economy, including most capitalist observers, for instance the editorial writer in a recent issue of the London Economist are uncertain and uneasy about the likely outcome of this current frenzy. In the Financial Review of January 27, 2000, a talk-it-up bull has an optimistic two-page overview of the US economy.
Nevertheless, even he gives us the extraordinary information that the new technology stocks have a value that is 30 per cent of the whole US stockmarket, while they only produce in the real economy 5.8 per cent of the actual goods produced, a very scary contrast indeed. The only point really at issue among most economic observers, except for the dopiest, most naive bulls, is the magnitude, dimensions and character of the inevitable “correction” that will flow from this market mania.
Many observers think there will be a very major slump indeed, with enormous global repercussions. Whatever happens will bear down brutally and ruthlessly on the poorer section of the population in advanced countries, and on the whole population in underdeveloped countries. Whatever form the so-called correction takes, it will also impoverish large sections of the speculative middle class, the ones unlucky enough to be caught on the wrong foot when the music stops, so to speak.
Many of the profiteers from the current frenzy will, of course, remain very rich at the expense of the rest of the population. One thing is absolutely certain: the inevitable future economic upheavals will cause the kind of massive social turmoil that make a significant and substantial revival of Marxism very likely.
Keith is nobody’s fool. He is obviously haunted by this “danger” of a revival of Marxism. He ends his strange and threatened Quadrant article about Western culture with this portentous conclusion:
If reality could count for so little in this case, if intellectuals were especially prone to pursue their theories despite their falsification by all the known facts, it is highly unlikely that the history of these events will remain an isolated phenomenon. The fall of the Soviet Union cannot be assumed to have put an end to the matter. The probability is that what we have witnessed in the 20th century is likely to recur. If this is so, it makes it all the more important to take up the leads Kramer offers in his book, in particular to study the cultural shifts required for this to occur. We still need a full explanation of how, in the environment of a largely prosperous, liberal democratic capitalism, a generation of writers and artists, many of whom were dedicated to high culture, could persuade so many people, not the least themselves, that the political and economic arrangements of their own country masked a system that was so degenerate and corrupt it deserved to be overthrown by social revolution.
This last paragraph saddens me. It underlines how Keith’s outlook has changed almost totally into the opposite of the outlook he once held and defended so eloquently. That Windschuttle now bemoans the possibility that other intellectuals may rally to the side of the working class in the years to come is indication of a rather uneasy conscience.
Marxism will revive. The old mole of social revolution, and the ideas of Marxism as a useful tool, are a hardy and vigorous little family of beasts, and they will, in fact, scuttle out of their burrows and begin to breed again quite quickly.
Marxism will, in the first instance, revive amongst the section of the youth who are deeply affected by the impending economic upheavals, but whose prospects, possibilities and aspirations are blocked by the way the rich and powerful occupy most of the available territory. Those rich and powerful people, the ruling class, will, as usual, attempt to impose the cost of any future upheavals on the rest of the population.
I spent a couple of days over the Christmas break at the Marxism 2000 Conference organised by the Democratic Socialist Party, a grouping with whom I have strategic and ideological disagreements (alongside some things on which we agree).
One very good thing the DSP does is to maintain political connections with revolutionary organisations overseas, particularly in Asia. At this conference there were delegations from growing and active Marxist and socialist organisations in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. There was also a large group from a very important socialist organisation in Indonesia, which has emerged once again despite the effects of the enormous massacres 35 years ago.
There were lively and significant organisations from the Philippines and South Korea, and young socialist activists from Timor. There were also significant groups present from countries in the region that it would not be appropriate to name because they are still brutal dictatorships.
The striking thing about the conference participants from all these countries is that most of them were reasonably young. They seemed to be the cream of the recent student and postgraduate generations in their countries. They were enormously interested in Marxism as the most useful ideological weapon in their struggle, but most of them had thoroughly shed any illusions about Stalinism and Maoism.
They are, by and large, thoroughly modern and they are not naive or particularly sectarian. Their enthusiasm for Marxism goes hand in hand with considerable interest in what you would call the Western cultural tradition, and they do not make any sharp distinction between these diverse cultural influences. It was fascinating to watch the cross-fertilisation and tactical and theoretical comparison of notes that took place between the Marxists from different Asian countries, and also their interaction with the Australians. You had better believe it, we are going to hear a lot more about some of those young Asian left-wingers in the years to come.
Despite what I’ve just said, I’m not blindly or mindlessly optimistic about the future from a socialist point of view. I’m a rather battered old radical, like most left-wingers of my generation. The socialist project took a very bad belting from the twin betrayals of Stalinism and right-wing social democracy, and it’s early days yet in the necessary project of refashioning it and developing sufficient new analysis and strategy to make it effective in the new conditions.
But, inevitably, such a necessary redevelopment of Marxism will take place. The class struggle still exists and is, in fact, broadening and intensifying on a much larger global scale than witnessed in any past epoch. Necessity will generate the kind of renovation of Marxist theory and practice that these times demand.
Part of the “Stalinist-influenced American folk song revival” of the 1930s and the 1940s, that Keith appears to dislike so much was a musical work, the words and music of which were written by Kurt Weil, and which was sung at various times by Lotte Lenya and Paul Robeson, called Ballad for Americans. The haunting refrain, usually belted out by a throaty Robeson, went something like this:
After the noise,
the patriotic shouting,
It will come again,
The marching song will come again.
And the marching song of social revolution, of which Robeson sang, will certainly come again, probably reasonably soon.
1. A correction by Gavin Gatenby, January 6, 2003
There were in fact two parades by the regiment, which weren’t more than a few weeks apart. I think the first was in Orientation Week. I wasn’t present at this one. The regiment troops had bayonets on their rifles for the parade and while they were marching along the road in front of the buildings on the front lawn, a protester (I think a woman), ran into the parade and one of my good friends (who was marching) managed to stick her in the back with his bayonet. There was a lot of discussion of this at the time and the left were very pissed off.
I was already very skeptical of the case for the Vietnam War.
The second march was a few weeks later, and the governor of NSW, Roden Cutler, was going to be present or take the salute, or whatever. Cutler was the honourary Colonel of the regiment or some such. It was widely rumoured that the radicals were going to disrupt the event and some of us were informally asked to go along and mingle with the crowd to prevent this from happening. I was one of them. I left home joking about wearing “street-fighting gear”.
The left did in fact disrupt the event (very sucessfully). The governor was surrounded and jostled and during this one of the radicals (can’t remember his name) rushed towards him and I leaned back on the crowd pressing in behind me, pushed the sole of my boot into his chest and hurled him away from me. There was a bit of fighting after that, about which I don’t remember very much.
In the upshot the proctors laid charges against, I think, seven radicals and myself (as a token violent rightist).
Before the Proctors I was defended by Jim Spiegelman, who told the proctors that the way I was dressed that day indicated that I wasn’t out for trouble. A rock came through the stained glass windows during the trial (the left were rallying outside).
The whole thing was a farce. I was acquitted and the lefties were found guilty. I could see clearly what was going on, that it was a farce and a miscarriage of justice.
A few days later a very nervous leftie (was it a bloke called Thompson?) came to my home and told me that seven of the lefties were going to reject their guilty verdicts, refuse to pay the fines, or whatever. What did I intend to do?
Well I said I’d stand with them and reject my acquittal! Thus was born the Eight Against The Proctors. Thereafter I drifted more and more to the left. Can’t remember what the outcome of the Eight thing was, finally. It all drifted off into other stuff like the Victoria Lee Affair, the Moratoriums etc, etc, I think.
I was, by the way, never an officer, and I stayed on in the regiment, where nobody seemed to mind very much. By that time there were very solid doubts about the war everywhere.
[This article was written shortly before the 2000 tech-wreck, which marked the end of the dotcom stockmarket boom.]