Peter Coleman: The Tenacity of a Liberal Intellectual

Peter Coleman was at the centre of the most important intellectual shift of the 20th century. It was an ideological perfect storm – a convergence of forces that brought catastrophe to the liberal intellectual tradition of the West, and elevated neo-Marxist ideology and postmodern obscurantism to the positions of intellectual dominance that they have held ever since. It was the late Sixties, the height of the Cold War, with universities throughout the Western world multiplying like microbes and bursting at the seams as the best and the brightest of the Baby Boomers battled through their identity crises and prepared for glittering careers in an emerging post-industrial society. There was a tremendous hunger for one of the new ‘paradigms’ within which the cultural and political chaos of the times could be made to cohere into acceptable personal narratives, providing a comfortable political orientation for this vast cohort.

For several years the result may have been in question, but in 1967-8 it was resolved. Firstly, devastating revelations emerged about the Congress for Cultural Freedom which, along with associated organizations and various high-profile journals, had been established to defend cultural and intellectual freedom from the totalitarian threat. Suddenly it was revealed that it was receiving funding from the CIA – an ideological kiss of death. Secondly, a series of student rebellions and demonstrations around the world announced the arrival of a new radical form of politics, marked by contrived spontaneity, irresponsibility, and irrationalism, and informed above all by a sense of generational change that was simultaneously Oedipal and Promethean in its lust to be sui generis, politically and intellectually new and beholden to nobody. 

The older liberalism was abruptly in disgrace and the New Left in the ascendant. Previously great names like Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Daniel Bell, Raymond Aron, Albert Camus, Robert Conquest, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Shils, James Burnham, Melvin Lasky, Leopold Labedz and Sydney Hook were consigned to an intellectual limbo and virtually expunged from intellectual history.

New names appeared, as a cadre of imperious master thinkers was ushered onto stage by such ideological entrepreneurs as Perry Anderson and the other Francophile Trotskyites of the New Left Review. Suddenly, a magical pantheon manifested itself: Foucault, Althusser, Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, Lytard, and Baudrillard; with Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, and Chomsky thrown in. (Incidentally, the predominance of French theorists reflects the extent to which they achieved prominence by promulgating a radically simplified and “hyperbolic repetition of German philosophy”, as Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut point out in French Philosophy of the Sixties (pp.19-26). By shedding the complexity of the German originals and distorting their core ideas the new master thinkers made them accessible to junior academics and graduate students while also servicing the anti-American, anti-liberal, and anti-humanist agendas that increasingly dominated academia and culture.)

This was an ideological coup of the first order and we have lived with the outcome ever since. We are therefore fortunate that important aspects of the event are illuminated by Peter Coleman’s eminently readable book, The Last Intellectuals (Quadrant Books), which complements his earlier study, The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe (1989), and indeed describes the research and writing of the earlier book. Coleman ranges far and wide in the many essays and articles that make up the book – from a tense meeting in Sydney in 1961 that determined the future of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, to another notable event in 2007, when God apparently chose Coleman as an amanuensis to deliver a missive concerning the atheist views of P. P. McGuinness. In addition to its reflections on ‘the last intellectuals’ and their struggles, it offers many other interesting articles on various cultural and political events and personalities of the past decades, from Xavier Herbert, John Passmore, and Pierre Ryckmans, to Bazza McKenzie, Bruce Beresford, and John Gorton.

As Coleman recalls, the work of the Congress was “an epic drama in dangerous times” (p.14), when cultural issues were literally matters of life and death, especially for those courageous writers, artists and intellectuals behind the Iron Curtain for whom the Congress and its associated journals offered some hope that their voices might be heard and their names not forgotten. It offered a forum and a “common voice [for] that mixed company of intellectuals from New York to New Delhi, from Madrid to Melbourne [who were] determined to save civilization or go down fighting” (p.131). The discrediting and collapse of the Congress in 1967 following the revelations about CIA funding decimated the anti-communist forces in the ideological and cultural Cold War at the worst possible time.

While ‘the last intellectuals’ remained quite capable intellectually of continuing their work and of defending themselves, their work was nevertheless marginalized on university campuses awash with the literature of a vastly empowered and insufferably self-righteous New Left, supplemented by thousands of dirt-cheap Marxist-Leninist publications from Moscow and Peking. The arguments and views of the earlier liberal generation were brushed aside on the basis that they now shared some deeply distasteful collective guilt. Even their acknowledged masterpieces and intellectual breakthroughs could not escape the stigma that had so easily been imposed. Orwell, for example, only escaped absolute condemnation because Homage to Catalonia was read as a favourable account of the Spanish anarchists, who were currently fashionable.

Similarly, at a time when the ‘Young Marx’ and the theory of alienation was central to the New Left critique of contemporary society, Sidney Hook’s brilliant study From Hegel to Marx (1936) could not be admitted to the debate and had to be replaced (or indeed replicated) by The Young Hegelians and Karl Marx (1969) by David McLellan, who was a young and untainted Marxist writer. It also became ideologically de rigueur to avoid all authors, such as Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958) and Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski (Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1967)), who dared to refer to ‘totalitarianism’, because the latter term was deemed by the New Left to be a reactionary attempt by ‘Cold War warriors’ to discredit communism by associating it with Nazism (as if it wasn’t capable of discrediting itself). Preeminent liberal Sovietologists like George F. Kennan and Adam B. Ulam were denounced, and suddenly only arch-leftists like the Trotskyite Isaac Deutscher and the historical relativist, E. H. Carr, were accredited for the study of Russia and the Soviet Union.  

Liberal sociologists like Edward Shils and Talcott Parsons were similarly condemned as conservative apologists for capitalism because their theories allegedly promoted a false ‘consensus’ view of society, when the New Left insisted that the dastardly truth was only exposed by ‘conflict’ theories like Marxism (and this view still dominates sociology, especially in Australia, which partly explains its demise into breathtaking tedium and irrelevance). Daniel Bell’s seminal insights into The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1974) were dismissed because his analysis wasn’t economic determinist and he’d striped the industrial proletariat of its revolutionary role. James Burnham was absolutely beyond the pale, even though (or because) The Managerial Revolution (1941) identified the rise of the bureaucratic ‘New Class’ that the Left would later largely constitute.

Knowing who was in and who was out in this intellectual game became increasingly important for undergraduates in the early 1970s as they struggled to submit work and express opinions that judiciously reflected the current ideological situation and, in time, this ideological coup and associated cynicism reconstituted the arts and social sciences in the image of the New Left, with all its obsessions, rage, moralizing, self-loathing, and blindness.

Ultimately, the very term ‘liberal’ itself became pejorative, a label to be fixed to any author who observed the tenets of the liberal intellectual tradition and the principles of objective scholarship, while refusing to become an advocate of the favoured causes of the New Left. This approach was exemplified by Chomsky’s extended defence of ideological tendentiousness in ‘Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship’ (1969), which concluded that liberal and scholarly ideals and those who hold them exhibited a natural affinity for repression and dictatorship, as was illustrated, according to Chomsky, in the Vietnam War, which he blamed on American aggression and the liberal intellectuals who allegedly defended it.

Much of this history is tragic, and Peter Coleman offers various revealing anecdotes as he recounts his exploits in researching and writing The Liberal Conspiracy. Diana Trilling, for example, declared that the story he had to tell “is littered with broken friendships! What a cesspit!” (p.13); while Coleman describes how the 1961 meeting had as its “real agenda … the humiliation of one or other of two leaders of Sydney public life”, in an election for the presidency of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom fought between those who wanted to continue the Association’s campaign against communist totalitarianism, and those who wanted to engage with “the exciting new ideas of the 1960s”, which included the view that anti-communism was becoming old hat and that the two world-systems were ‘converging’ (p.3). On that occasion the former group prevailed and the line was held.

A decade later, in 1970, after the demise of the Congress, Coleman attended another meeting, of the Board of the International Association for Cultural Freedom, the successor of the Congress. There he witnessed an “epiphanic moment” and realized the tables had been turned (p.7). In discussion, Leo Labedz, the Polish editor of Survey, begged desperately for people to stop deluding themselves: “there had been no ‘end of ideology’, he said, no ‘convergence’ in the Cold War, no liberalization in the USSR, no new ‘worldwide community of intellectuals’” (p.6). Their mission still lay before them, but unfortunately too many liberal intellectuals had become accommodationist and had lost their “former clarity of purpose” and combative élan at precisely the moment when the New Left was undertaking its “long march through the institutions”, in a strategy “which threatened to destroy the universities, politicize cultural life and appease the Soviets” (pp.6-7). The following day, in response to Labedz’ lament, the French poet Pierre Emmanuel spoke on behalf of the board. He welcomed the New Left, which he felt was “trying to fill a spiritual emptiness in life”, and he described how his own son-in-law had become “a Maoist apostle of tabula rasa, of a new beginning from zero” (pp.6-7). These views provoked little discussion. It had come to this.


What is to be made of such nihilism and of the resigned acceptance of it by an accomplished poet and literary figure like Emmanuel and the members of the Association for whom he spoke? It betrays a crisis at the very roots of Western civilization that was overwhelming even the best intentions of the ‘last intellectuals’. Elsewhere in his book Coleman writes of James McAuley that “he was more than a poet. He had a prophetic gift, a sense of the crisis of civilization that sustained his readers and brothers-in-arms” (p.87). Lacking enough people like McAuley, or the completely focused Richard Kygier, or the prescient and intransigent Burnham, or the redoubtable B. A. Santamaria (all of whom Coleman discusses in his book), it is perhaps comprehensible that the resolve of the Association crumbled as the New Left began its ‘Long March’, and came ultimately to succumb to a despairing accommodationist outlook.

Not that this gesture of intellectual détente was ever reciprocated. As Coleman recounts, the entire generation had to be disparaged by the victors: Koestler was condemned by the Left as a rapist, Orwell as a spy, Silone as an informer, MacAuley as a sex maniac, and so on. They were all dismissed as “shits” and consigned to an “ideological gulag for anti-communists whose thought-crime was that they had been right about communism all along” (p.60). In Frances Stonor Saunders’ tendentious history of The Cultural Cold War (1999), the long and courageous struggle of the Congress was dismissed as a disgraceful deception, and as “all a fiction, a fabricated reality”, in which the ideals of democracy and free enterprise were really just one side of a “Manichean dualism”, matched on the other by the equally credible ideals of bureaucracy and socialism, with both sides just acting out in a silly, “convulsive pas de deux”, unable to admit their foolishness and find the common ground that allegedly had been there all along (Saunders, pp.414-5). Saunders’ contempt is often breathtaking. For example, Diana Trilling is portrayed as being “in a carnal mood” as she declared in the middle of a discussion about intellectuals who were either ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ on communism: “None of you men are hard enough for me!” “They were ridiculous people, really, who lived in a teacup”, the anecdote concludes (Saunders, p.158).

Coleman justifiably gives Saunders short shrift, pointing out her many deficiencies of research, and her juvenile eagerness to assign discreditable characteristics to the leaders and membership of the Congress (“lupine”, “oily”, “fake”, “silly”, “pathetic”, etc). Above all, he points out how she lacked the necessary imagination for the task, the capacity to empathise with the people she was writing about, and was unable to comprehend, much less enter into, their mental world as the global crisis crystallized in the immediate post-war years. As Coleman recalls: “communists and their fellow travelers expected soon to be able to welcome Stalin’s tanks in the streets of Paris and Rome”, while “the old refugees from fascist and communist concentration camps who rallied to the Congress for Cultural Freedom in 1950, were prepared to resist and, if necessary, go down fighting” (p.9). To someone like Saunders, born in 1966, such concerns might seem exaggerated, but that was hardly the view of many as they moved from one nightmare to another in post-war Europe.

Unfortunately, there have been many other books seeking to debunk the ‘last intellectuals’ and Coleman has done well in refuting their various outrageous claims. For example, his chapter on Koestler reveals the extent to which he was systematically traduced by David Cesarani in Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1999).  He also quotes an interesting passage by Frank Knopfelmacher that emphasizes how the tragedy of Central European Jewry (“a congenital catastrophe without parallel in European history”) must inevitably have found expression in the work of a Jewish intellectual like Koestler (p.62).  

Similarly with Orwell, who faced “perhaps the most persistent campaign of all” (p.89) to destroy his reputation (which is really saying something!). The centerpiece of this was the allegation that Orwell had provided to the government a list of writers he thought might be collaborators if the Soviets invaded Britain in the immediate post-war period. The Left reacted with outrage: E. P. Thompson, Salman Rushie, Edward Said, Raymond Williams, Isaac Deutscher, and others all joined in their denunciations. Some of these should have known better, while the revelations about how Said artfully constructed his biography make him a poor authority on integrity.

It is a similar story with Stefan Collini’s Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (2006), where Orwell is treated in a very superficial fashion that manages to gloss over Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, while judging Orwell “obsessive”, “exaggerated”, and of “bad faith”, as Coleman points out (p.99). Collini tends to the view that genuine intellectuals are located on the “moderate, non-ideological Left”, where any concern with the totalitarian threat is seen as a personality defect. Other intellectuals are treated in a fashion that reflects their location on the political continuum. For example, the views of Roger Scruton are dismissed as “doctrinaire” and those of R. G. Collingwood as “exaggerated”; while A. J. P. Taylor is allowed to downplay the destructive role he played in many important historical debates, promoting, for example, the still dominant nihilist view of the Great War. Also, as Coleman points out, Taylor used his considerable influence “to promote anti-Americanism and a benign view of the Soviet grand guignol” (p.100), in a career that made him one of the most influential intellectuals of the mid-twentieth-century.

Ultimately, Coleman concludes, Absent Minds is merely “payback for George Orwell” (p.102). (Collini distinguished himself several years ago by celebrating “the aura of omni-competent grandeur” of the prose of the Trotskyite éminence grise,  Perry Anderson, typified, as Collini approvingly emphasized, by a liberal use of such words as “taxative”, “lustration”, censitary”, “caducity”, “ galumphery”, and “moetic”, as well as “neuralgic” – which may have referred to the effect of such pretension on his spell-checker (“Marxism and Form”, The Nation, 22/11/2005)

The acuity of Coleman’s rebuttal to all these attacks is best demonstrated in his essay on Cassandra Pybus’s The Devil and James McAuley, which rightly appeared as one of The Best Australian Essays 1999. As he laments, according to Pybus’s execrable book with its multitude of mistakes, “McAuley was a committed opponent of communism. Therefore he must have been sick in the head. This is because he repressed his sexuality, especially his homosexuality, or displaced it onto the Devil” (p.130) … as you do, according to the pseudo-Freudian psychobabble of the Left. Coleman then lists “eight simple rules” for misrepresentation that one can exploit to produce this type of tendentious reading. Working his way through these ‘rules’, Coleman recounts many of the key facets of McAuley’s life and identifies the central forces that drove his friend, including McAuley’s poetic genius, religious quest and commitment, philosophical grounding, political activity, academic achievements, unexcelled awareness of the evils of totalitarianism, and his unparalleled ability to express all this in poetic and literary form.  

In a few pages of concise prose informed by a controlled anger, Coleman shows how Pybus’s condescending and dismissive approach produces only another instance of the “ultimate banality” that typifies the obsessive iconoclasm of the contemporary Left (p.132).

This is an outstanding book that illuminates many of the most interesting cultural, and political events of the past half-century, when the ‘last intellectuals’ stepped forward to hold the line before one of the most sinister threats in the history of the world. It remains a battle that is far from over. It was one that Peter Coleman never shirked from fighting.

The Last Intellectuals: Essays on Writers & Politics
by Peter Coleman
Quadrant Books


  • Trevor Bailey

    That “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality” has become a commonplace since TS Eliot wrote the words in 1935 is both a saddening and cheering fact: saddening, because it foretells our species’ enduring romance with romantic ideas that end in totalitarian rule; cheering, because occasionally someone with courage and clarity of thought like Peter Coleman AO comes along to show us that objective truth endures.

  • johnbdrake

    Sad also to see how the visual arts in the west were conscripted but likes of Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp to become instrumental in replacing Western tradition. A walk through any gallery of modern art today shows the dismal outcome of that project. Robert Hughes gave some critique of how much bad or non art our society has been presented with as a result but, as was once aptly stated in a song, ‘Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.’

  • johnbdrake

    Sad also to see how the visual arts in the West were conscripted by likes of Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp to become instrumental in replacing Western tradition. A walk through any gallery of modern art today shows the dismal outcome of that project. Robert Hughes gave some critique of how much bad or non art our society has been presented with as a result but, as was once aptly stated in a song, ‘Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.’

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