John Anderson, Helen Garner & racial offense

I am writing a book with the working title of Australia after socialism that explains the Australian intellectual left since the early 1990s. Tim Rowse in a review in Arena Magazine No. 4 of Meaghan Morris Ecstasy and Economics, described her approach thus:


Unlike those who practice political biography, she holds no brief for explicable human subjects; in her resolutely anti-humanist cultural analysis. Keating is a congeries of representations whose resolution into a single intelligible phenomenon is not to be taken for granted


Perhaps this is my guide and in a Focualdian style we might categorize political arguments in novel ways. The recent controversy about repeal of s18C of Racial Discrimination Act is an example. It has been a rallying point for most of the Australian left. Opposition from those on the self-defined left has been rare. Anthony Lowenstein has provided one. He argues:


The RDA has not reduced tangible racism in Australia (if anything we’re becoming less friendly to migrants, according to a new study) and we shouldn’t look to a state that entrenches racism to legislate against it.


This distrust of the state and defense of independent social action and argument that state regulation serves to obscure social inequalities echoes recalls earlier arguments on the left. Two episodes are significant one was the mid 1990s preoccupation with political correctness and the battles between Andersonains and their opponents at the University of Sydney. In 1995  Helen Garner published The First Stone, an imaginative account of a sexual harassment case at Ormond College Melbourne University. Garner was strongly critical of the eventual decision of the complaints to pursue sexual assault charges against the Master of the College, educationalist and historian Alan Gregory. She condemned what she saw as puritanical ‘priggish’ and legally focused feminism. Twenty years on it is fairly clear that the facts of the case were as the complaints described them and even Garner’s unsympathetic narrative suggests that this was the case. The book sold over 30000 copies in its first few months. It generated books in response and a torrent of media coverage even a Four Corners story. Garner appealed to the legacy of an older ‘libertarian’ feminism and complained that cases such as Ormond diverted attention from more violent sexual assault.  The case perhaps divided the broad left more than 18C has today.  Why?  Mark Davis famously identified generational conflict between baby boomer Whitlamites and a new generation of activists.  Perhaps but I also see a sign of the disarray of the left after the collapse of the socialist project (as Kevin McDonald noted at the time). The First Stone had overseas parallels such as Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After and spoke to a reaction against ‘theory’. This reaction in Australia generated works such as David Williamson’s Dead White Males but also Jean Curthoys’ Feminist Amnesia.


The participants in this controversy echoed older debates. We can see the legacy of the philosophical traditions of John Anderson, Philosophy Professor at the University of Sydney 1927-58. Anderson’s pluralism and skepticism initially inclined him towards the radical left but disenchanted with Communism and then Trotskyism he moved to the right. He retained a high opinion of Marx, but not his disciples. Anderson criticized what he saw as the naive faith of the left in the state. His admirers in post-war student politics battled Communists, labourists and Catholics.  Anderson was strongly influenced by Georges Sorel who also influenced Gramsci, who is the icon of contemporary Australian ‘new Marxists’ as represented by Left Flank. The Accordist hopes of the 1980s also drew on Gramsci who was a strong critique of Italian protectionism and statism, although the ‘new Marxists’ reject this heritage.


Arguments about free speech and the left have cropped up elsewhere. The recent controversy around Stephen Colbert provides a comic example. Michelle Goldberg sees a revival of the ‘anti-liberal left’, which seems overstated. Corey Robin is more skeptical.



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