The remarkable career of Peter Coleman

The publication of Peter Coleman’s collection of essays with some memories and reflections is a reminder of his remarkably productive career as a public intellectual. Those who do not share his politics should note that his first book in 1974 was a scathing critique of Australian censorship.   Obscenity, blasphemy, sedition: censorship in Australia.   

This demonstrates that he  is not a conservative of the kind piloried by Hayek, but a true classical liberal. Duffy and Snelgrove reprinted the book “because of its entertainment value (due to Coleman’s wonderfully light but effective style, and the intrinsic interest of its subject matter), its importance as a work of popular history, and its new relevance at a time when there are increasing attempts to censor the Internet.”

The Russian Revolution and its aftermath was the defining issue of the 20th century to assess the integrity and credibility of journalists, commentators and intellectuals. The  overwhelming majority failed the test. Peter Coleman and Robert Manne did not. This prompts the idea of an essay to compare and contrast the careers and contributions of  these two public figures.

“Peter Coleman and Robert Manne are Australia’s two most interesting public intellectuals. Discuss”.

They were both prepared to make the hard yards when it was very unfashionable in intellectual and academic circles to tell the truth about communism. Later on Robert Manne lost the plot, but that is another story.

I just want to suggest that Peter Coleman is our most productive public intelectual, if not the  most rich and famous. Check out the record.

In sporting terms Coleman was probably never the best on the field, or the winner of medals at the end of the season but it would not be a surprise if his team mates voted him the “game ball” for the effort and the example that he provided.

1974 (reprinted in 2000) Obscenity, blasphemy, sedition: censorship in Australia. Brisbane: Jacaranda Press. 211 pages. 

1978 with Les Tanner  Cartoons of Australian history. West Melbourne: Thomas Nelson.

1980 (reprinted recently) The heart of James McAuley: life and work of the Australian poet. Sydney: Wildcat Press. 132 pages.  

1984 Memoirs of a slow learner. Pymble: Angus and Robertson. 166 pages.

1989 The Liberal Conspiracy. The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe. New York: The Free Press (Macmillan). 333 pages. 

2008 With Peter Costello  The Costello Memoirs. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. 400 pages.

The latest, a rich and varied collection of essays and reviews.

More of his books and editorial contributions are listed here. Such as:

The collection of essays on Australian Civilisation which he edited (the introduction which he wrote was on line but the link is now dead).

His biography of Barry Humphries. Chapter 1 and Chapter 20 on line in the Rathouse.

The biography of Bruce Beresford Instincts of the Heart, 1993.

The recent biography of Heinz Arndt.

Editor of a collection of “incorrect essays” by unfashionable thinkers.

Editor of Quadrant for many years, plus editorial roles with The Bulletin and other periodicals.

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14 Responses to The remarkable career of Peter Coleman

  1. Rafe – I agree. A long and distinguished career.

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  3. Whittaker Banks says:

    Dear Peter Coleman

    Yes, many thanks for your distinguished career from all of us here at the CIA. You had the courage to take money from us while we were also funding death squads and violent repression across the third world. The blood onj your hands never leaked onto you fertile pen. Well done!

  4. Edward Mariyani-Squire says:

    “Most interesting” and “most productive”. Setting aside the adverb, what are the measures of “interesting” and “productive” here?

  5. Rafe says:

    Range and volume of material, plus quality and importance of issues addressed.

    What criteria or measures would you like to suggest for interest and productivity?

  6. derrida derider says:

    I’m old enough to remember Peter Coleman in his prime. As you imply, a smart guy who was more interesting than your average McCarthyist. But McCarthyist he was.

    McCarthyism was not just anticommunism. There were always plenty of anticommunists (and even more anti-Soviets) on the left as well as the right, especially by the 1960s when Coleman was at his most prominent. But a McCarthyist was someone who preferred to use anticommunism as a stick to beat the broad left with rather than actually targeting real communism; a tactic so successful in the US that to this day there is no centre-left there. I can remember all the “reds under the bed” stuff – you can’t.

    Rafe, if you think democratic socialism is sufficently harmful to human wellbeing that the ends justified the means with this approach, fine – but don’t try and rewrite history by telling us the users of these means were being principled when they acted as they did.

  7. Rafe says:

    Chapter and verse required DD. I have read the early issues of Quadrant and cannot recall any McCarthyism, not do I find McCarthyism in any of Coleman’s work that I have read. McCarthism was a conservative “own goal” that did more to help the left than any efforts of their own.

  8. Adam ant says:

    What on earth is your problem with McCarthy.

  9. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I bought PC’s book on James McAwley and found it pretty light on. Haven’t read anything else.

  10. Rafe says:

    It was not a blockbuster but it was an important contribution to give some sense of the multiple achievements of James McAuley given that people on the left could only manage a smear campaign like the disgraceful effort by Cassandra Pybus.

    Possibly the most important book is his history of the rise and fall of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the fight-back against communist propaganda in intellectual and cultural life. The CIA should be congratulated for doing something useful in providing support!

    His book on censorship is obviously important in the context of the time it was written but it was not a book that you needed to read to form an opinion on the issue.

    The most interesting in some ways is the collection on Australian civilisation which he edited, it has Shaw on the old Australian tradition, McCallum on the state of liberty, Max Harris on manners and morals, Bobin Boyd on the look of Australia, Manning Clark on faith, Vincent Buckly on intellectuals, Robert Hughes on painting, Inglis on the daily papers, Donald Horne on businessmen (a positive piece!), Taft on myths and migrants, Encel on power and Wolfsohn on foreign policy. An all star cast.

  11. Started out as interesting but degenerated into a Liberal Party hack, a good lesson on how intellectuals can be corrupted by politics. He edited Quadrant when it fell all over nihilist irrationalsits like Roger Scruton and supported Hugh Morgan’s war against Noel Butlin. Coleman’s anti-communism was ultimately a pretext for a general war against the Enlightenment, and his writings on religion are a pitful exercise in self-abasement. The only one of the Quadrant anti-communists with anything noteworthy to say was Knopfelmacher.

    ‘The Russian Revolution and its aftermath was the defining issue of the 20th century to assess the integrity and credibility of ‘journalists, commentators and intellectuals’. The overwhelming majority failed the test.’

    Define ‘journalists, commentators and intellectuals’ is it people with university degrees? people employed by newspapers or just people you dislike?
    Define ‘overwhelming majority’

    France in 1950: the portion of blue-collar workers who considered the Soviet Union a utopia would have far exceeded the portion of ‘intellectuals’ however defined.That is what the electoral evidence suggests (see S M Lipset) but facts get in the way of intellectual self-hatred.

  12. Rafe says:

    Geoff, for the record of the intellectuals, refer to George Orwell and his problems with communists and fellow travellers.

    Refer also to the ongoing smear of Quadrant regarding CIA funding, as though that invalidated the anti-communist campaign, or influenced editorial policy.

    What is your view of the activities of the Congress for Cultural Freedom?

    dd, are you going to produce evidence of Peter Coleman’s McCarthyism?

  13. Judy Tanner says:

    I am reading these entries about Peter Coleman’s alleged political affiliations or should I say, perfidies with growing disbelief.I may have been a child in the sixties but Peter Coleman was a great friend of my father, cartoonist Les Tanner and my father until the mid 50s was a member of the Communist Party.So much for Macarthyism- whoever you are – you have that wrong. Peter Coleman was editor of Bulletin and Dad was art director when Frank Packer famously pulped as much of the edition of the magazine as he could when Peter Coleman wrote “Day of the quicklime” an indictment on Sir Henry Bolte Victorian premier’s decision to hang Ronald Ryan. Peter Coleman,like my father, took his journalism and the journalistic ethics that accompanied the profession very very seriously. Qadrant funded by the CiA? Can this be- I thought it, like Oz magazine was part of the renaissance or perhaps more properly, the birth of intellectualism and liberalism ( of the small l variety)in print in the 60s in Australia.My father was a regular contributor to the magazine and his cartoons were usually pretty incendiary.Then there were all the contributors and great wits like Barry Humphries and Will Rushton and crew and a whole pack of journalists and cartoonists who were anything but pro the right. My father would be rolling in his grave now at the very suggestion that Qadrant,a publication he thought so highly of was funded by the CIA and frankly I dont believe a word. Peter Coleman if I remember correctly was the editor responsible for eradicating the Bulletin’s racist banner “Australia for the white man” During the visit of LBJ in the 1960s with Harold Holt practically foaming at the mouth to to go all the way with Lyndon Bain ( funny how Liberal party PMS always want to do it with American presidents- look at Howard and Bush in matching PJs- Peter Coleman and my father as well as many other journalists and intellectuals, savagely lampooned and fought to derail this bid to take over Australia. Some strange opinions here- maybe I am on the wrong page.

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