Inside Story

The right kind of middle class?

What happened when journalist Peter Coleman assembled a star-studded group of writers in 1962 to rethink the way intellectuals viewed Australia?

Frank Bongiorno 19 December 2012 2513 words

The almost-forgotten early 1960s: prime minister Robert Menzies and US president John F. Kennedy at the White House in February 1961. AP Photo

As cultural politics, it was a failure. As a marker of intellectual renewal, though, Peter Coleman’s book-length symposium Australian Civilization, published in late 1962, remains an immensely valuable period piece. Intending to counter the “naive humanism and nihilism” that Coleman associated with “the Australianist legend” — the world evoked by Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and the fabled white bushman of the outback — Coleman argued that alongside the mateship, egalitarianism and “democratic innocence” of this legend was “the snarl of the collectivist bully.” In the book’s most memorable juxtaposition, he remarked that “the open smile” was joined by “the broken bottle.” Coleman announced that he and his authors would celebrate a middle-class civilisation that had been neglected by commentators on Australian society, a way of life that had only recently begun to come into its own.

Coleman took his cue from a recently published set of lectures, An Australian Perspective (1960), by Max Crawford, professor of history at Melbourne University. In a brief but perceptive account of the late 1930s, Crawford had noticed “a new level of maturity and professional skill in Australian life.” Coleman saw in such recognition evidence of a “counter-revolution in Australian historiography,” an antidote to the radical tradition. Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend had appeared in 1958, a powerful restatement of that tradition by a former communist and present socialist, which also managed to maintain a high standard of scholarship. (It had begun life as a doctoral thesis on popular ballads.) The time seemed ripe for a counter-attack.

The star turn of Australian Civilization was not Crawford, however, but his most famous student, Manning Clark. Coleman believed Clark had “been of the greatest importance” in recasting understandings of Australian history. He had delivered an influential lecture about a decade before in which he had criticised radical-nationalist history and argued that left-wing historians systematically underestimated the power of bourgeois civilisation in Australia. So the fact that Coleman sought to enlist Clark to his cause of contesting radical-nationalist understandings of the past was not as absurd as it might now seem given Clark’s continuing status as Australian conservatism’s least-favourite intellectual.

In the still-small Australian historical profession of 1962, Clark was also the man of the moment; the long-awaited first volume of A History of Australia appeared in the same year as Australian Civilization. Although it attracted condemnation from some critics, including the fanatical anti-communist Malcolm Ellis, its vision of Australian history as a clash of Catholic, Protestant and Enlightenment beliefs rather than of class or material interests was congenial to Coleman’s purposes. Clark contributed to Australian Civilization a chapter on “Faith” that laid out an influential account of the differences between Sydney and Melbourne intellectual traditions.

Coleman, later leader of the Liberal Party in New South Wales and later still a member of federal parliament, was associate editor of the Bulletin at the time. In its glory years of the 1880s and 1890s, the Bulletin had epitomised the Australian radical-nationalist tradition now condemned by Coleman as “anti-civilised.” By the 1950s, it had settled into the dull conservatism that its most famous editor, J.F. Archibald, had predicted would befall such a lively youth. But under Donald Horne’s vigorous leadership in the early 1960s, the magazine had been shorn of its more embarrassing associations, including its support for the White Australia Policy, and it seemed young once again.

The Bulletin’s rebirth as a sophisticated magazine was part of a broader renewal of Australian intellectual culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There were many other signs of life; Horne had edited the Observer, a quality fortnightly launched in 1958, before taking over at the Bulletin. On the left, the ructions caused by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” of the same year condemning Stalin, had opened up new possibilities. So had the emergence of a new progressivism that, in its Australian manifestation, looked beyond such cherished Labor policies as a White Australia, high tariffs and the male living wage to issues that turned on what would soon be called “national identity” and “quality of life.” New journals popped up — Nation, Outlook, Prospect, Dissent — while slightly more experienced players such as Meanjin, Quadrant and Overland found themselves in a climate of ideas that was more open, competitive and lively than before. This climate had already begun to extend to the mainstream press, most obviously at Rupert Murdoch’s Adelaide News (especially under the editorship of Rohan Rivett), and at the Australian Financial Review. It would soon be felt in the country’s first national daily, Murdoch’s Australian, and at the Age under legendary editor Graham Perkin.

But much of this was still to come when Australian Civilization appeared. In a brilliant chapter on the daily newspapers, the historian Ken Inglis concluded that “it is hard to imagine anybody launching a national daily paper unless Melbourne or Sydney or Canberra comes more nearly to dominate the thoughts and tastes of the nation.” How rapidly things were changing in the early 1960s: such a paper would come into existence just two years later. Inglis’s instincts were sound, however, in an important respect; the Australian could not have been launched and then survived without Murdoch’s willingness to lose money on it. Inglis had not so much misread the Australian newspaper business as underestimated the boundless ambitions of young Rupert.

Yet Australian Civilization, for all of its admirable qualities, sometimes reads like a book based on an understandable series of misapprehensions about the world opening up in the 1960s. Its editor and star-studded cast of authors were able to shine light in this or that dark corner, often with great flair. But the situation at home and abroad was too fluid, too uncertain, to generate the kinds of insights into the direction of Australian society that would survive the earthquakes of the later 1960s and 70s. Australian Civilization is, rather, a product of the almost-forgotten early 1960s — the rational, liberal and measured idealism stimulated by John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, Martin Luther King’s dream of fellowship between the children of slaves and slave-owners, and Harold Macmillan’s “wind of change” blowing through Africa. In Australia, where the political world was dominated by the likes of Bob Menzies and Arthur Calwell, both well into their sixties when Australian Civilization appeared, cultural and political renewal seemed to some critics especially urgent — a point that would be driven home with great force in the period’s most famous piece of extended social commentary, Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country (1964). Britain had turned its face decisively towards Europe, having applied in 1961 to join the Common Market. Its way would be blocked by France in 1963 but for old British Australia, the writing was on the wall.

The world of Australian Civilization remained, of course, a Cold War world. The Cuban missile crisis was the international emergency of the year. Coleman, along with some of the other contributors, was a member of the organisation that published Quadrant, the Australian Association of Cultural Freedom, or AACF. This product of international Cold War cultural politics has had a bad rap since it was revealed in 1967 that it had long been receiving CIA funding via its affiliation with the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom. But the AACF was a significant player more broadly in the Australian cultural politics of the 1950s and 60s. Nor was Quadrant the only Australian publication funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Dissent, a left-leaning journal, also received assistance from this source after some helpful intervention from the British socialist Anthony Crosland, who’d visited Australia as a guest of the AACF in mid 1963.

The Congress for Cultural Freedom was particularly concerned with encouraging the anti-communist left, so it was very much in keeping with its aims that a left-leaning journal such as Dissent should get help. Similarly, the cast of authors in Australian Civilization were by no means figures one would have identified, then or now, with the political right. Inglis, as a public intellectual, had made his name writing for the left-liberal Nation; and A.A. Phillips, best known for his essay “The Cultural Cringe” and senior English master at Melbourne’s exclusive Wesley College, had a notably close relationship with the radical-nationalist tradition identified by Coleman as the book’s principal target.

Australian Civilization does work as a genuine “symposium” in that its contributions include criticism of other contributors. The staunch anti-communist James McAuley, for instance, made clear his distaste for “the so-called Australian Tradition” that Phillips had welcomed in his 1958 book of that title. And where McAuley rather idiosyncratically described sculptor Tom Bass as “in the wasteland of sculpture… the deepest and richest artistic talent, the most significant personality at work in Australian art today,” Robert Hughes paid Bass a more backhanded compliment: “The slickest Australian sculptor at present is Tom Bass: his work is almost totally uninventive, yet, at the same time, its quasi-monumental personality seems ideally suited to the plans of civic developers and church architects.” In 1964, the editors of Oz — another new magazine of this period, but one which prefigured the arrival of a rather different 1960s, that of the counter-culture — would be prosecuted for their “critique” of Bass’s work, after they published a photo of his P&O Wall Fountain in Sydney being used as a urinal.

In the cultural politics of our own times, it is the political left that is accused of hating Australia, of elitism, and of cultural pessimism. It is the left-wing historians who supposedly wear black armbands and see Australia’s past as an unrelieved tale of gloom marked by racism, sexism, violence and environmental destruction. But the dominant note in Australian Civilization, conceived by Coleman as an antidote to shallow and sloppy leftist thinking, is one of pessimism; there was apparently little in the Australian past, and not all that much more in the Australian present, to cause a believer in civilised values to celebrate.

If any readers took seriously University of Sydney philosopher Douglas McCallum’s diagnosis of “The State of Liberty” in Australia, for instance, they might have been inclined to follow Henry Lawson’s advice to Australian writers and “Go to London or Timbuctoo, or shoot themselves.” For McCallum, Australians were “comfortable, materially and spiritually, both respectability and vulgarity are rampant, and liberty is not therefore a subject that impels them to incertitudes, ferocity or derision.” Australia was “a puritanical, insular, monotonous country… made beautiful by God but committed to increasing uglification by man.” He derided Australians as smug, apathetic, authoritarian and conformist. No “Howard-hater” could have put the case more eloquently, circa 2005; but McCallum was contributing to a symposium contesting the left’s supposed hold over cultural politics! He even condemned “the annual Anzac Day reign of terror by returned soldiers,” in similar terms to those that might be used to condemn the debauchery of Schoolies Week from an outer-suburban Brisbane pulpit.

None of the other contributors produce quite so depressing a picture as McCallum, but then none strike a truly optimistic note. For bookseller and author Max Harris, Australian society was “bleakly uniform.” For Robin Boyd, whose influential book The Australian Ugliness had appeared in 1960, “the look of modern man-made Australia is inclined to be either crashingly dull or calamitously over-interesting.” Australia, he said, was still “pioneer-minded” and “colonial” because in matters of design it continued to favour the judgement of the amateur over the professional. But Boyd also saw some hopeful signs: Australia now had professionals who well understood international standards. What was needed was not a pale imitation of Madison Avenue but rather an injection of local creativity.

Postwar affluence, for some authors, had actually made worse various traits, such as suburban complacency, long evident in Australian society. Australians, it seemed, were becoming less proletarian and more middle-class — a jolly good thing — but would they become the right kind of middle class? Vincent Buckley, Melbourne poet and literary critic and Catholic liberal, saw much to condemn in Australian intellectual life: academics, for instance, were “job-conscious,” “suburban,” “ideologically unsophisticated” and “very little concerned with the more intense manifestations of our culture.” “Because so many of our intellectuals speak out so seldom,” said Buckley, “it is hard to characterise the climate of opinion.” Yet, like Boyd, Buckley also saw hopeful signs of internationalisation. Postwar European migrants were beginning to enliven intellectual life, while “with surprising rapidity, the environment into which the majority of Australians wake every morning is being jazzed up and internationalised.”

Like most collections of essays, Australian Civilization has its disappointments. Donald Horne’s contribution on “Businessmen” and Hugo Wolfsohn’s on “Foreign Policy” were both insubstantial. The latter took sixteen pages to conclude that “in the circumstances there seems to be no alternative to the foreign policy of the Menzies government,” thereby unwittingly providing solid evidence for Buckley’s claims about the complacency of Australian academics. The book is also notable for what it doesn’t say. Racism is identified as an undesirable feature of “the Australianist legend,” and no doubt most or all of the contributors would have liked to have seen a liberalisation of the White Australia Policy. But there is something less than an energetic critique here, Aboriginal people barely rate a mention, and postwar non-British European migrants receive only passing, if respectful, notice.

All contributors were men, and only McCallum and Harris seem to have thought Australian women worthy of separate attention. Even then, what they said was brief. While McCallum clearly saw that something was awry — many women clearly felt “unfree” — he thought it had more to do with the oppressions imposed by other women than those instituted by a male-dominated society. Harris thought Australian men notably respectful to women, and that “if the Australian comes home boozed from the pub and stoushes with the missus, it is the stoush of human equals.” (He failed to provide any statistics about how many men, as opposed to women, were likely to emerge from such a “stoush” with a black eye.)

In his book In a Critical Condition: Reading Australian Literature (1984), the literary historian John Docker pointed to the irony that Australian Civilization’s cultural pessimism and anti-radical nationalism provided almost a blueprint for the kind of critique developed by left-wing historians in the 1970s, beginning with Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia. It was in this sense that Australian Civilization failed as cultural politics; its Cold War calculations were largely undone by the very different version of the 1960s that emerged with the Vietnam War, the new social movements and identity politics. Coleman, for one, came to believe that sixties radicals had exploited for their own revolutionary purposes the hard-fought reforms — in areas such as censorship — begun by progressives in the earlier period.

Meanwhile, some of those Coleman identified as cadres of his “counter-revolution” found their hero in Gough Whitlam. Coleman might not have agreed, but for them Whitlam was decidedly the right kind of middle class. •

Australian Civilization: A Symposium
Edited by Peter Coleman | Published in 1962 by F.W. Cheshire