Inside Story

The wartime origins of the culture wars

The battle dividing the Liberal Party dates back to Labor’s electoral success during the second world war

Norman Abjorensen 7 March 2017 1969 words

Catalyst: the popularity of prime minister John Curtin (right), shown here in 1942 with US general Douglas MacArthur, prompted a rethink among conservative politicians and business figures. National Archives of Australia

The turmoil engulfing the Liberal Party is essentially a recrudescence of the culture wars of earlier decades. But it has been given new impetus by a perception that while the right won the economic battle after the collapse of communism, the left is winning the fight on the cultural front.

The culture wars in Australia have a long history, and one that has periodically erupted in political turmoil for both the Liberal Party and the Labor Party. Their first stirrings can be traced back to the late 1930s and the little-known figure of B.A. (Bob) Santamaria, a student activist who had begun mobilising support for the pro-Fascist forces of General Franco and his coup against the Spanish republic. To the young Santamaria (whose later cultural offensives from within Catholic organisations would plunge the Australian Labor Party into crisis), the conflict in Spain was a clear choice between traditional Christian-Catholic society and the secular forces of modernity.

But it was not until the dark years of the second world war that the Australian right began to think in cultural terms, and the catalyst was the immense wartime popularity of Labor under John Curtin and a fear that the government’s sweeping emergency powers over the economy would be retained once hostilities had ended.

A prominent business figure, F.E. (Frederick Ernest) Lampe, mused after Curtin’s landslide election win in 1943 that, culturally, Labor was seen as “more Australian” than the conservative United Australia Party. (The UAP was the precursor of today’s Liberal Party, which Lampe was instrumental in forming.) The right needed to engage at the cultural level and win hearts and minds, he believed, if capitalism was to survive the war.

Lampe’s call to arms fell on fertile ground, leading to the formation of the Institute of Public Affairs, or IPA, which dedicated itself to fighting the culture war on behalf of capital under the banner of “free people, free society.” Headed by economist Charles Kemp, it was the driving organisational and ideological force behind the formation of the Liberal Party and the architect of a stream of propaganda that sought, successfully, to discredit Australia’s very moderate Labor Party as a socialist tiger waiting to pounce once the war had ended.

Santamaria, meanwhile, had turned his attention to what he saw as the threat of communism. The anti-communist “cells” of Catholic activists he had mobilised in the trade unions were waging a war as much cultural as it was political, ultimately not only splitting the Labor Party but also helping keep it from power for a generation.

Curiously, Santamaria was greatly influenced by the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, who described how social groups or classes could change the face of society either by seizing power, as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia, or through a struggle to win cultural power, a process Gramsci described as hegemonic power. Santamaria’s cultural struggle – mirroring Gramsci’s second approach – has been carried on by a legion of acolytes, including, most prominently, Tony Abbott and commentator Gerard Henderson.

It was Santamaria’s friendship with the poet and activist James McAuley that brought him into contact with an émigré Czech and former communist, Frank Knopfelmacher, with whom he worked until the latter’s death in 1995. The friendship opened up a new culture war front within the academic community, which the pair regarded as “predominantly leftist and progressivist both in mentality and public expression.”

Both were active in the formation of the right-wing magazine Quadrant, published by the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, an affiliate of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (subsequently exposed as having been funded by the CIA). It was Quadrant that took up the issue of Sydney University’s rejection of Knopfelmacher, an outspoken anti-communist, for an academic post, in the face of a selection committee recommendation. The incident served the larger purpose of focusing public attention on the universities as hotbeds of cultural contagion.

This became a flashpoint issue during the Vietnam war, when the Association for Cultural Freedom came into direct conflict with anti-war groups on Australian university campuses. McAuley, Santamaria and others formed Peace with Freedom, whose stated mission was to “fight the battle of public opinion in relation to the Vietnam war.” The new organisation gradually broadened its scope into a struggle over the nature of universities. Were they to be centres of learning or centres of political agitation? It was a cultural battle Santamaria later conceded he had lost. At Knopfelmacher’s funeral in 1995, Santamaria lamented how, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, “party members and fellow travellers” still dominated academic life.

When I interviewed Santamaria in 1997, he gave his view that the protests against the Vietnam war were not an issue in themselves so much as part of a “cultural revolution” based on the premise “that the whole of the established order in Church and State no longer possessed authority.” It was, he argued, an even “more thoroughgoing cultural revolution than that which Mao initiated in China.” It was, in effect, a struggle for political and cultural power in Australia.

But the ground had shifted in Australia, culturally as well as politically, and the forces of the right were slow to grasp what was happening; it was easier to oppose than to understand. The Labor Party was better placed to take advantage of the new circumstances, having modernised, somewhat ironically, following the departure of many socially conservative Catholics after the Santamaria-driven split.

Under Gough Whitlam, Labor was able to exploit three key developments to which the right was oblivious: a whole new cohort of well-educated voters with no traditional political allegiances; the beginning of a fragmentation of traditional voting patterns, which would no longer be sufficient to sustain either major party; and the rise of new social movements that embraced a range of cultural and social justice issues.

Labor’s accession to office in 1972 ended twenty-three years of conservative rule and plunged the Liberal Party into a vicious internal war. A combination of international economic problems and a mildly reformist Labor government at home had two immediate effects on the Australian right: the first was shock and disarray following the end of almost a quarter of a century of conservative rule; the second was a steeling for battle.

But the party was not at all united, and various ideas for an entirely new anti-socialist alliance were floated, involving, among others, the now moribund Democratic Labor Party, a declining Country Party, a libertarian party set up by mining magnate Lang Hancock and advertising man John Singleton, the racist and anti-Semitic League of Rights and the Christian morals group the Festival of Light.

Previously, all that these widely diverse groups had had in common was anti-communism, but its importance as both an issue and a rallying cry had diminished. Broader cultural issues had spilled into the political arena, and while some commentators saw a conservative bifurcation between cultural and economic issues dating from this time, the two are in fact tightly interwoven. One cultural warrior, Tim Duncan, writing in the IPA Review in 1986, argued that a “failure of nerve” among business and community leaders dated from the late 1960s, when conservatives had ceded control of a “broad range of cultural institutions.” This had led to the rise of “newly aggressive conservatives” who were making “enthusiastic attempts to regain their cultural influence.”

With Whitlam’s re-election in 1974, the business establishment sprang into action on the cultural front. The chambers of commerce launched “economic education” campaigns Australia-wide, directed mainly at schoolchildren, and six large corporations, mostly with strong US links, contributed $200,000 to establish Enterprise Australia, which aimed to be “the most important group in the propaganda warfare for capitalism.” It also brought a succession of “economic educators” from the United States to provide “guidance.”

The economic shocks that rocked the world in 1974 spawned a range of analyses and explanations, none more influential than a report commissioned by the Trilateral Commission, a group started in 1973 by banker David Rockefeller and made up of big business interests in the United States, Western Europe and Japan. Called The Crisis of Democracy, it argued that the general decline of traditional authority in Western societies had weakened effective government and undermined capitalist enterprise.

The central thesis of the report, which served as a road map for Ronald Reagan in the United States, Margaret Thatcher in Britain and, much later, John Howard in Australia, was that a surfeit of democracy led to people increasingly demanding “rights.” A growing proportion of the population was involved in new groups – or in old groups with a new consciousness – that were using increasingly diverse political tactics to pressure governments to meet their escalating needs.

The document became the blueprint for a cultural counter-reformation across the Western world and even beyond, its immediate influence being seen in the rise of a whole host of new pro–free market think tanks, such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Sydney Institute in Australia. It also emboldened the IPA and other bodies, whose image-building and “educative” functions gave way to a more strident and sometimes shrill advocacy. People like Friederich Hayek and Milton Friedman came to Australia under the IPA’s auspices, spreading laissez-faire economic arguments and hammering away at the idea that too much democracy had led to “government overload.”

The Liberal Party was divided by this break with the economic and welfare consensus that had largely prevailed since the end of the second world war. Prime minister Malcolm Fraser resisted the new currents, but a rising group of economic “dries” within his party agitated for change. After losing office in 1983, the Liberals embarked on yet another civil war and a bout of revolving-door leadership changes, while Labor, under Bob Hawke, drove bold reforms that Fraser had shied away from.

Writing in the IPA Review in 1986, Ken Baker drew attention to the battle within the Liberal Party. It had, he said, “allowed a (mostly) false dichotomy to emerge between cultural values and economic growth.” The calls by business for deregulation and privatisation were to be concealed within a Trojan horse of cultural concerns. “Why should culture matter?” Baker continued. “The most obvious answer is that culture concerns the life of the spirit; it touches, indeed it forms, our sense of identity – both as individuals and as part of a community. It is thus understandable that despite the resilience of the hip-pocket nerve, issues of culture stir the passions more than calls for deregulation or privatisation.”

Passions were indeed stirred in the coming battles: new fissures were opened over the bicentennial celebrations in 1988, the Mabo case in the 1990s, the push for an Australian republic, and so on. While John Howard engaged on the cultural front by seeking to reclaim the Australian legend, mateship and the Anzac legacy for the right, he was criticised for failing to prosecute the culture wars with any real vigour. Conservative columnist Greg Sheridan, for example, wrote in 2007, “Far from ferociously waging the culture wars, the Howard government has been mostly missing in action.”

The conservative revolt we are seeing today, led by Tony Abbott, Cory Bernardi and others, is merely the resurfacing of a tendency long present in the Australian right – but its impact may well determine just how democratic Australia will remain in the coming political, social and cultural struggle. The stakes are high. •