Inside Story

Donald Horne, citizen intellectual

A compelling biography captures the trajectory of the man who named the lucky country

Frank Bongiorno Books 4 August 2023 2982 words

Buzzing enthusiast: Donald Horne (centre) in 1983 with University of Western Sydney students — from left, Caroline Downs, Tony Cogin, Lizzy Falkland, Steve Le Marquand and Dominic Chang — representing national stereotypes. Lily Zdilar/Newspix

Donald Horne is best known as the author of one spectacularly successful book that gave Australian culture one of its enduring self-images, that of the lucky country. The phrase is still often used, not always with an acknowledgement that there was an irony in Horne and his publisher’s selection of it as the title for his 1964 bestseller.

Australia’s luck, Horne suggested, had acted as a buffer for the mediocrity of its elites and might well be running out. Even on that supposed sewer of public discourse, Twitter, you will occasionally find someone reminding us of the book’s killer line: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.”

The relevance of that famous remark to Australian public life almost sixty years later is debatable. Is “second-rate” now too generous for our elites? Do many Australians feel a great deal less lucky in 2023 than their counterparts of 1964, in an environment of global warming, soaring house prices, rising inequality and democratic decay?

Ryan Cropp has written a fine biography of Horne. Based on a University of Sydney doctoral thesis, Donald Horne: A Life in the Lucky Country is fundamentally a study of Horne’s public life — his role as editor, writer, thinker, administrator and activist. Cropp might sometimes seem reluctant to take us too far in probing the inner or private life, but he is perhaps following some of his subject’s own hesitations in such matters.

The book is also a reminder that universities continue to produce authors who can write for a general audience without sacrificing academic rigour. Horne himself, addressing graduating students at the University of New South Wales in the mid 1980s, was critical of the taste for “legitimating rituals,” “secret languages” and “moribund Talmudisms” in universities, the trend towards over-specialisation and the contracting audiences. Cropp would surely impress him with the accessibility of his writing and ideas.

Much was happy about Horne’s childhood as the son of a schoolteacher who was also a returned soldier. His early years were spent in Muswellbrook, but as David, his father, became increasingly difficult to live with, the family moved to Sydney. David Horne’s mental health would eventually collapse, and accusations of sexual misconduct were made by a student. If Donald’s earlier life in a country town had been largely carefree, the famous pessimism associated with the early decades of his intellectual life might date from those latter experiences.

The basic outline of Horne’s early years would have been familiar enough to many young Australians of the era: the troubled Anzac father; the move from country town to big city; the bright state school boy who creates plenty of sparks at the university — editing the student newspaper as a stirrer and crusader — but leaves without a degree, his studies interrupted by unsatisfying war service.

Yet Horne also had exceptional talents, even if they took some years to yield the fruit that might have been expected to come earlier. Like many of his contemporaries at the University of Sydney he came under the influence of the Challis professor of philosophy, John Anderson, and he carried a version of Anderson’s realism and libertarianism into his intellectual and professional life.

“If history can be spoken of as having ‘lessons,’ one of its lessons is the futility of human schemings,” Horne said in the late 1940s. “Historical situations arise from other factors than, and often in spite of the desires and intentions of men.” That made any form of planning by government, or perhaps any effort at social improvement by anyone, a futile exercise.

Horne’s activities as a student journalist attracted the attention of the legendary Daily Telegraph editor Brian Penton, who employed him even while Horne remained at the university, and again a few years later. The core of Horne’s thinking, such as it was in the period before he turned forty, seems to have come mainly from his understanding of Anderson, but the hectoring, aggressive style came from Penton.

In fact, the early Horne, as painted by Cropp, is a deeply unattractive figure. The retrospective assessment of one of the friends with whom he fell out — that Horne was a “posturing prick” — seems accurate. Put bluntly, he comes across as a chancer and, at times, a bully, a master of the putdown with “weathervane critical instincts.”

Cropp allows us to see as much, but shows forbearance in offering judgement. He lets the suggestion hang over his narrative that much of the bitterness of Horne’s persona came out of personal trauma, and it is hard not to see the decline of Horne’s family life in his remark that “the harsh fact of human existence is that there are always clouds on the horizon.” He read voraciously, but the intellectual shallowness and derivative nature of most of what he had to say before the late 1950s are striking. And he could be brutal in his dealings with others, especially with pen in hand and press at the ready.

He was also good at serving powerful masters, to his (and often their) advantage, while seeking to maintain the conceit that he was really an outsider gatecrashing the party. We are familiar with his kind of elite populism from our own times. Invective triumphed over argument, ritualised scepticism over evidence, the too-clever-by-half smart alec over the searcher for truth.

All of that might have been forgivable in a student journalist or politician; it is less so in a man in his late twenties spouting nonsense about economic planning and rising totalitarianism among Canberra politicians and bureaucrats. It is among the ironies of Horne’s career that he barracked so hard in the 1940s and 1950s for the political and policy mediocrity that he would later condemn in his most famous writing.

His curriculum vitae during these years was various but untidy. He was bright enough to be among a dozen recruits into the Department of External Affairs’s diplomatic cadet scheme. He gained some pleasure from the study, but disliked Canberra and drifted towards journalism — and then back to his hero, Penton, and to Sydney. There was an early marriage to an English divorcée, Ethel, and the two of them were soon off to England. Horne thought of Australia as dull and second-rate and wanted an escape.

In Britain, living with his wife and some of her relatives on a farm — and for a time in London, which suited him better — Horne learnt that there was also a local franchise on the dull and second-rate. He became a would-be novelist: his two efforts each failed to find a publisher. Cropp presents him as somewhat in the spirit of England’s Angry Young Men of the era — but obviously without the literary success. He became involved in local Conservative politics, a would-be revolutionary of the right come to clear away the political rubbish of postwar Britain, then drifted back into journalism, writing rubbish for a tabloid before taking up a job with his old paper, Sydney’s Telegraph, in London.

For the paper he reported from Kenya, where the Mau Mau rebellion was beginning, and wrote of “terrorists,” “brutes” and “black monsters” who were “filled with an animal-like bloodlust that nothing can control.” As ever, he was good at writing what the powerful wanted to read, condemning critics of colonialism for their naivety. As Cropp points out, readers would not have known from Horne’s account that the whites were doing almost all of the killing. Still, Horne thought he might become a foreign correspondent: “Horne of Africa.”

We don’t normally think of Horne as one of the Australian postwar expatriates, presumably because his time there was only four years and his fame came in Australia a decade later. But there are good reasons to think that these years mattered a great deal to his intellectual development and later thinking. He didn’t do well among the British, but nor did he think highly of them — despite having arrived with a fairly conventional middle-class Australian view of Britain as the measure of all things. It is hard not to connect his later nationalism to this experience.

But perhaps that is to draw too straight a line — for as always with the rising Horne, it is wise to follow the money, or at least the ambition. In 1954 he agreed to return to Australia at Frank Packer’s behest: he would edit a new tabloid, Weekend. He agreed he would come back for six months, and left his wife behind in England, but he remained in Australia and the marriage ended.

Weekend was tabloid trash but sold very well, reaching a half-million circulation and boosting Horne’s stocks in the company and the world of Sydney journalism. The aspiring novelist who had abandoned mediocre Australia now built a career wallowing in that very same mediocrity as the editor of a rag that featured swimsuit models, but it also meant he was a well-paid Packer executive.

The identity as “intellectual” remained, however, and Packer was prepared to indulge him by supporting a new venture, the Observer. It was part of an efflorescence of new quality publications of the late 1950s and early 1960s that also included Tom Fitzgerald’s Nation. A talented group of writers and thinkers coalesced around these publications — Peter Coleman, a former philosophy lecturer and future politician, worked on the Observer, for instance, and the young art critic Robert Hughes would write for both publications.

Packer’s acquisition of the ailing Bulletin brought the Observer to an end, for he wanted Horne to edit it and refused to support two such publications. Horne famously modernised the Bulletin, removing the “Australia for the White Man” slogan from the masthead as well as much of the old staff. But Packer removed Horne himself from the job in 1962, causing him to fall back on tabloid editing. That was never going to last, and it didn’t. A humiliated Horne temporarily left the Packer stable.

Next for Horne came a period in advertising, and a role editing Quadrant. In many ways, his timing for the latter was poor, for that magazine, founded in 1956, was an instrument of the cultural cold war and, as would soon be revealed, was receiving CIA funding. Horne had nonetheless found a group of intellectual — and dining — companions in the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, which published the magazine.

But he was moving leftward. A cold warrior with the worst of them in the 1950s, a stance that proved a useful substitute for thinking seriously about the complexities of international politics, Horne now began to have second thoughts. Or rather, he began to think. He remained staunchly anti-communist, initially supporting Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, for instance. The Bulletin under his editorship also published meaty — and sometimes rather obsessive — articles about communism’s influence in various corners of Australian life.

But he seems now to have regarded cold war anti-communism as an inadequate instrument for considering Australia’s place in the world. Where once it had seemed five minutes to midnight for isolated Australia in a world of unforgiving international rivalry, he now wanted to talk about the implications of the decline of the United Kingdom for a country that had long regarded itself as part of Greater Britain. He wanted to talk about how Australia, still attached to racial exclusion, might relate to Asia other than as part of an anti-communist alliance. How might Australia adapt to the opportunities offered by new technologies? How might it begin to think and act for itself instead of simply moving from under the domination of an old empire and into the orbit of that newer power in the world, the United States?

Horne was a legend of the long and liquid lunch, and an enthusiastic conversationalist. Many of his friendships with figures on the right would decline as he moved leftward. The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties was more a signpost along the journey than a fork in the road: it encapsulated many ideas he had been developing, and had often already placed in print, well before its appearance at the end of 1964.

The book’s basic optimism about the Australian people was a contrast with his earlier Pentonesque attitude, which condemned them for their complacency. It was the leaders who Horne now thought mediocre. In a country where most were partisans of one or another of the parties, he confused everyone by condemning both the Liberals and Labor, Bob Menzies and Arthur Calwell.

As late as 1965, though, having returned to the Packer fold, he was playing a leading role in Liberal leader Robin Askin’s successful state election campaign (a matter Cropp strangely overlooks). He had not yet abandoned the Liberals. That would come later, with the rise of Whitlam, whom Horne came to think of as the kind of moderniser he had been wanting for years. He was devastated by the dismissal of Whitlam’s government, and played a role in leading anti-Kerr protests. Along the way he lost more friends on the right, who now saw him as a Labor stooge.

The Lucky Country had made Horne a famous Australian, and his life, ever after, was that of a celebrity, not merely a public figure. There would be many more books, including a highly regarded autobiographical trilogy, most of them worthy and interesting, all attracting significant media and public attention, yet none as successful as the first, freakish success of 1964.

Never, in Australian cultural history, has a book been better suited to a moment — but that moment passed, and more quickly than most moments because this was the 1960s. Cropp does well in taking us through the rest of the oeuvre right through to Horne’s brave, posthumous Dying: A Memoir, without dwelling too long on any particular publication.

Horne would leave journalism for academia — the University of New South Wales — in the 1970s, and he turned out to be rather good at it, even as he continued to balance the life of national figure with the everyday duties of university work. He read widely, including theoretical works by Antonio Gramsci and Roland Barthes. Where his earlier books had been intuitive and polemical, he now sought to provide greater system and depth. It was a testament to his openness of mind that he was willing to do so, and Cropp rightly gives him credit for it.

He was prolific, a workaholic, a buzzing enthusiast for ideas, books and argument. He took on the role of chair of the Australia Council for the Arts and threw himself into that with the same energy that he gave to most things. He was a co-founder of the Australian Republican Movement in 1991, but found himself increasingly marginalised. It is surely remarkable, and disgraceful, that neither the ARM nor the Howard government was able to find a place for him at the Constitutional Convention of 1998. By then, he was a venerable elder but seemed to come from another time. Still, he continued to write, to publish books, and to ponder the country’s future.

As in any successful biography of a complex subject, puzzles remain. Just how much of the bitterness of Horne’s early career in public life, and the pessimism of his theory of history, came from the ordeal of his father, and how much from Anderson and Penton, is hard to say. Similarly, the greater optimism, and pluralism, of Horne’s mid- and late-life public persona seem to map rather uncannily onto a second and happier marriage to Myfanwy (née Gollan), herself a journalist and the daughter of a journalist.

Two children, a girl, Julia, and a boy, Nick, came along to complete the family, and the impression is of a happy home, if one designed to ensure that Donald was able to get on with his professional life, and especially his writing, without too many disturbances or interruptions. Cropp has a little to say about these matters on the way through and especially near the end of the book — enough to suggest their importance to the public man and the critical thinker and writer. But they form a subplot in this book, not the main story.

Cropp concludes that we will not have another Donald Horne, and it is easy enough to see why that would be so. It is one of this book’s achievements to contextualise his remarkable career and show how our own times are not his. Horne was what Patrick Buckridge, Brian Penton’s biographer, has called an “editor-intellectual.” Penton was the model, and figures such as J.D. Pringle and Paul Kelly would come later. But in an age of media concentration and shrill op-ed commentary, that species is dead, even while Kelly lives on.

Horne’s career assumed the existence of a public sphere in which one could participate as a citizen, a place where ideas could be debated between rational beings, possibly oiled by a few bottles of wine. Horne’s early efforts often failed to rise to that ideal, but in the second half of his life he played the role of editor-intellectual and then citizen-intellectual with notable success.

In our own times, civil disagreement has become more difficult, even as Australia, as a nation, faces dilemmas that are sometimes uncannily similar to those Horne grappled with: how to respond to the decline of a great empire; how to respond to the changing balance of power in our region; how to modernise our political life and constitutional arrangements so that they better reflect our present rather than our past. Horne’s example of vigorous but respectful disagreement, as Cropp shows in this compelling and important biography, is well worth revisiting. •

Donald Horne: A Life in the Lucky Country
By Ryan Cropp | La Trobe University Press/Black Inc. | $37.99 | 384 pages