From Left to Right and back again: The Donald Horne enigma

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The book is not just a good read, nor simply a journey through D’s life, but is also an account of D’s shifting political perspectives, and criticisms of Australian culture and intellectualism (Image via blackincbooks.com.au)

A new selection of writings by iconoclastic social commentator and historian Donald Horne has vital lessons for Australians today, says John Maycock.

NICK HORNE, when introducing his new book Donald Horne: Selected Writings, says he has ‘tried to give people a good read’.

And noting that when his father Donald was pressed on ‘how he would like to be remembered’ had answered, as ‘someone who gave people something to think about’, Nick Horne said he hoped his selections of his father's writing will do the same.

Donald Horne is referred to as "D" in the book — a convention we will follow here. 

The book begins with a substantial preface/essay written by Glyn Davis titled 'A Public Intellectual: The Life and Times of Donald Horne', which is an integral part of the book and the source of some of the following observations.

The book is essentially snapshots of various times in D’s life (1921-2005) through his own writings, starting with his primary school days and ending with a narrative dictated from his death bed, which is

…a kind of discontinuous narrative; each piece can be appreciated on its own, and the whole comes together to suggest a portrait of one of Australia’s most famous public intellectuals and the country he wrote about.

Indeed, the work does show glimpses of Australian life and history over time, but in addition it shows

… the journey of a curious Australian, a child of the Enlightenment, as he describes a changing world ... [including] ... opinions that he later disavowed, but… are… included as a record of D’s thinking, if not as evidence that people can … change their minds.

Nick has not just achieved this, but it has surpassed his intentions. The book is not just a good read, nor simply a journey through D’s life, but is also an account of D’s shifting political perspectives, and criticisms of Australian culture and intellectualism. For the most part, he is scathing of Australians, like him famous polemic The Lucky Country; most of his work, critical of the established order. According to D, Australia lacked intellectualism and innovation, its governments were ineffectual and we looked to the rest of the world for ideas; what made us lucky was the abundant resources, which saved us from ourselves.

Read Nick Horne reflecting on his father's most famous work: The Lucky Country, HERE

D's politics are a bit confusing. On the surface, he appears to move from Left to Right and back again. However, the shifting lines between the two and the fracturing of political parties/alliances may have had as much to do with where he would choose to stand as any shifting in his core political/social values. Indeed, D does show some confusion himself. As a university student, he identified with the Left, although he was under the sway of a professor who kept shifting from Communism to Trotskyism, to abandoning Marxism for a Libertarian position, 'constantly rework[ing] his philosophical position',  to finally characterise his position as Anarchist.

Half a dozen or so years later, working at Sydney's Daily Telegraph (1945-49), D described himself as

…an anarchist conservative, a radical conservative, and a liberal conservative.... [In] favour of abortion reform and the legalisation of homosexuality and against censorship, racism [and] wowser-inspired restrictions on amusements.

D also took this perspective to his editorship of the Bulletin, (1960-61), where he cleaned up the misogyny and bigotry — removing from the masthead ‘Australia for the White Man’ and the 'tired cartoons about Indigenous Australians’. For him, the Bulletin’s Australians would now include

… women, city dwellers, young people, New Australians, Catholics, Aborigines, scientists, intellectuals, executives and dozens of other previously forgotten species.

As editor, Donald Horne got rid of the Bulletin's racist motto

Yet from 1964 to 67, D became co-editor of the right wing Quadrant magazine — a publication sponsored by the Australian Committee for Cultural Freedom (a group apparently funded by the CIA and later to change its name to Australian Association for Cultural Freedom). It was due to his involvement with this group – and the likes of B. A. Santamaria that he ‘…embraced a fervent anti-Communism that, for a season, marked his thinking and writing’. During this period, D advocated for the Vietnam war, closer ties with the United States 'and [was] a familiar voice in the cause of the right’.

However, when reflecting on it later, D concluded that he had, for a time, 'fall[en] into a folly.

The Whitlam Dismissal finally fractured those relationships. D, a lifelong republican, came out in support of Whitlam, sparked the creation of the “Citizens for Democracy” movement (1976) and became for some time the 'principal face of republicanism’. When the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) was formed in 1991, Horne became a part of this push, but was disappointed with the group's leadership. So too, he was disappointed by the rise of Hansonism, the “Tampa election” and the use of xenophobia as a political wedge.

D had much to say about Australian culture – or lack thereof – though it was more about the lack of intellectualism. For him, there was no culture without intellectualism and, devoid of an informed/enlightened public, you cannot get good government as the politics is a reflection of the culture.

However, D advocated a “working class” intellectualism, not some form of academic elitism. He believed the public were not equipped to critically assess information. But that by reading – historical and philosophical, myth and fiction – and indulging the mind in exploring the Arts, people would develop the skills of critical thinking and a better understanding of the social and political world. This would, he suggested, enable more informed public participation in the Australian narrative and, therefore, a proper people’s government, arising through more informed decisions at the polling booth.

So, how would Australia stack up today in his eyes?

In 1962, D wrote of the Australian political Right: 

… I am afraid that in due course it may keel over, submerging all the good parts, still perhaps staying afloat, bottom up and dangerous.

Looking at the current ineffectual Prime Minister – who happens to be one of those ARM leaders who so disappointed D – the likes of Abbott and Dutton, along with Hanson, Bernardi and others, would suggest the Australian Right has indeed “turned turtle”. The seedy underbelly of xenophobia hate and bigotry, driven by greed, now seem to be the only parts of the ship visible above water. It is, of course, their control of the public narrative that keeps them from sinking. 

The rightwing demagogues and their hate groups, reclaimers and "patriots", anti-marriage equality, anti-anything-labelled-Left mob provide the only real buoyancy for the modern Australian Right.  Driven by illogical argument spread by a complicit media and reflected at the polling booth, enough voters have bought into this narrative to keep them from sinking. That xenophobic wedge that worried D is being hammered ever deeper; it is doubful it could be driven into Donald Horne's intellectually active society.

And here, for D, that “folly” he had fallen into was mainly due to ‘…ignoring one of the key maxims of sceptical conservativism... no excessive zeal.’ It seems much of the public has bought into that “excessive zeal”, reflected in the fundamentalists and White supremacist’s dogmatic ideologies, and many have constructed public personas and social identities around spreading poorly reasoned hate, believing they are intelligently participating in the public discourse. This may be just what D feared from an anti-intellectual society.

This book is a must read for anyone who has been curious about 20th Century Australian politics, history and culture. D speaks from a different perspective than that of the purely academic historian or professional researcher. Indeed, though D appears to have had a reasonably economically stable existence throughout the Depression period, his voice seems to come from a working-class sensibility.

Be warned, however, you may need to keep Google handy, as you will come across events and names that will pique your curiosity and the inquiring mind will want to know more.

Donald Horne: Selected Writings, edited by Nick Horne, published 3 July 2017 by Latrobe University Press, in paperback (336pp, RRP $32.99) and eBook (RRP $14.99).

(Image screenshot blackincbooks.com.au)

You can follow John Maycock on Twitter @L3ftyJohn.

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