Australia’s conservative myths are neither original nor unique. Here old foreign tragedies are regularly replayed as antipodean farce. Our myths, of the Right, like those of the Left, are dull and tepid, lacking fire, ingenuity, flair and style, though they do contain passages which are unconsciously and unbearably hilarious. But their demons and plots, their saints and salvations are as they appear to Australians, from a particular past and a particular physical situation—although newcomers bring their own haunted memories with them, and add to the stock of fear and fantasy.
These myths are strange concoctions. They have human if not always rational roots. They touch respectable political theory at one edge and sheer fantasy at the other. The mind of the more extreme Rightist is ridden by grand, spongy, inflated concepts, before which the empirical world dissolves. The understanding is bewitched by vast dichotomies and rigid abstractions, by bizarre fancies and wild suspicions, and by imaginary or exaggerated creatures, with whom the shadow-boxers of the Right fight unceasingly, though not always according to the Marquis of Queensberry rules. Life becomes a metaphysical thriller, featuring the forces of darkness and the forces of light, locked in mortal combat. That sense of the richness and complexity of human life and of the uncertainty and frailty of human efforts, which characterizes classical conservative philosophy, is altogether lost, and a counterfeit conservatism emerges from its ruins.
The myths of the Australian Right were not invented by their opponents, though they sometimes seem the work of a malicious and witty enemy. Lest it seem that I am merely creating a straw man, I stress that the following paragraphs are distilled from the speeches and writings of prominent Australians, including politicians (sometimes aided and abetted by their wives), judges, odd academics, and assorted knights who, normally in the sunset of their intellectual powers, pontificate regularly on the national plight.’1 Some of their main assumptions are spread widely throughout the Australian community, though often in disguised or muted forms. Australian political and cultural life has its dark and defensive aspect. The ideas of ‘the noblest race upon this sphere’ have been marked by a persisting concern with external threats and contamination, so that we have hidden ourselves behind fiscal, military, immigration and ideological barriers. Suspicious and fearful of foreign subversion or intervention and of internal criticism and variety, Australian society has shown strong tendencies towards conformism, intolerance and anti-intellectualism, ethnocentrism and racism, militarism and provincialism. Australian life is congenial to myth-making. It is fertile ground for what has been labelled the paranoid style in politics.
The myth of the Australian Right can be summarized roughly as follows :- Harmony or widespread acquiescence is the normal and desirable social condition. In Australia, as in few other countries, there is little objective ground for dissension and extreme antagonism to existing powers and policies. But despite her advantages, Australia is confronted by serious problems, by a crisis even, as civilized values crumble, old virtues are eroded, and the Australian way of life is steadily subverted. The explanation lies not in the shortcomings of the system but in the actions of evil persons and malevolent groups—small bands of extremists, be they ‘professional agitators’ or ‘rabid Communists’ or anarchists or whatever. The patriotic defender of society sees himself fighting a dangerous foreign enemy, who is aided by local dupes and minions. He faces, not spontaneous, untidy and sporadic effervescence but plots and conspiracies, of which history is one long record. Malignant and perhaps demented forces are held responsible for those political eruptions—marches and demonstrations, strikes and other radical blasphemies—which break the placid surface of the Australian polity. It is not far to the view that critics and protestors are in fact un-Australian, and supporters of enemy causes. Attention shifts from issues to persons and their patriotic credentials. Principled objectors and radical dissenters are grouped with vandals, larrikins, gangsters and spies. Conspiratorial theory, aided by crude, denigratory psychological doctrines,2 is used to deny the genuineness of dissent. Finally, the myth embodies a thwarted perfectionism, and implies a state of harmony once the enemy is gone.
The conservative, angrily moralistic and suspicious of modernity, sees his country as subject to moral decay and to subversion, which are connected. Things are getting steadily worse—as the result of individual decisions and actions, some of which are carefully calculated, to achieve hidden ends, and some of which are simply weak, slack and ignorant.3 He perceives moral decline in a spread of drugs and pornography,4 an increasing availability of abortions, a decrease in disciplined education, an increase of riots or demonstrations and crimes of various kinds, and a widespread rejection of established authorities and standards. There is much talk of a weakening of the moral fibre, a sapping of the national will, a rising tide of anarchy and permissiveness5—claims which might be validly supported but which normally appear as wild prophecies of doom. Sholl, in a clear and literate affirmation of the myth, finds uncomfortable resemblances between contemporary Australia and decaying Rome, and warns: ‘Sixteen years ago I wrote that this country was growing soft and lazy, like a grub feeding in sight of a swooping bird. This is still true; but the bird is nearer.’6 So momentous a decline is commonly felt to require more than indigenous causes: the bird must also feed the grub, the easier to devour it. In the wings there are subversives as well as sinners. Foreign bodies have an interest in our internal dissolution and division, and the mythologist moves from moral deviation and conflict (themselves bad and unnatural) to those external groups or powers to which local subversives must be related—if, indeed, they are not their creatures.
Conspiracy theories, which are commonplace in troubled times, are used readily by authorities of whatever political complexion. For the Australian conservative, conflict, whether in southern Vietnam or in Australia, is explained by the actions of small groups of disgruntled men, who meddle irresponsibly and violently with decent polities. The enemy may be portrayed as ignorant and immature, or demented, or Machiavellian—cold, calculating, deceitful and relentless in the pursuit of victory— while a conspiratorial movement would probably combine all three. In the contemporary folk-lore of the Australian Right the enemy is a Communist, although the heavily pejorative term ‘anarchist’ is coming into vogue, as ‘law and order’ is challenged (a new facet of the Communist Conspiracy?) and as the impotence and growing respectability of the various Communist Parties necessitates a convenient—hence loose and abusive—residual category for dissent. Occasionally a populist note is sounded, as with the League of Rights.7 But the main enemy remains the Communist who, beyond Australia’s shores, is now yellow rather than white, as the Yellow and the Red Menaces coalesce.8
The war which the conservative is fighting is fought on two inseparable fronts. There is an international conflict, traced mainly if not solely to the international conspiracy of insatiable communists. As Eric Butler puts it: ‘We are fighting a comprehensive war for the world. The Marxists have been winning for years.’9 Then there is its domestic support, a moral and political threat spearheaded by intellectuals and ‘educators’,10 university students, churchmen (especially of the naive variety), the ABC, radical unionists and the left-wing of the ALP.11 Sholl, speaking mainly of America, focuses on a popular target—’so-called liberal intellectuals’ (or ‘so-called intellectual liberals’) and the ‘leftish oriented news media of the world’. Less typically, he stresses that the dangerous American press is Jewish owned and controlled, and that the American Civil Liberties Union, which appears in court for radicals, is ‘largely represented by lawyers, especially Jewish lawyers, of the intellectual left’.12 In Australian Rightist polemics, that ancient outsider is reappearing as an enemy of society.
The struggle is hard. Sir William Yeo has told us that the Communists are taking over Australia, and that university protests are ‘no coincidence’. ‘The Communists are behind it.’ He added, with a hint of uncertainty: ‘I suppose it’s the Russian lot. They’ve run Communism in Australia for years.’13 John McLeay, well-known both for his sophisticated analyses of the world situation and for his startling revelations about the power of Communism in Australian life, finds Australia—unlike such citadels of morality as Rhodesia and South Africa—’almost a Communist state’, and declares that ‘many of our institutions have been subverted by communists—the trades unions, churches, universities and some sections of the press’. The danger, he felt, was not an external threat, but lay ‘here at home’.14 Malcolm Fraser explains the disillusionment of youth, and objections to conscription and to Vietnam, as the result of a propaganda victory by Communists in schools, campuses and homes in America and Australia.15 In the Australian setting he found no need to provide any evidence for such a large assertion. Indeed, for some, kicking the Communist can is a political tactic, not a response to a perceived threat, and myths are propagated without being believed.
To call a man a Communist in Australia means not that he formally adheres to a Communist Party but that ‘by his deeds and his friends shall ye know him’. Those who choose bad company or go outside the narrow boundaries of conservative virtue are attacked readily as ‘Commos’, and regarded as outside the Australian fold—an appropriate word in the context. The issues of legitimacy and loyalty are put starkly, without complexity or ambiguity. It is very much black or white, their camp or ours. And it is true that, given the assumption of a fundamental polarity on which all else hinges, what seem to some of us to be marginal or separate or irrelevant issues will take on a quite different meaning and relevance. For example Knopfelmacher has drawn a very thin line of ideological rectitude, deriving from his own conceptions of Communist objectives and what is to the Communist advantage. There is no middle way: once you leave the fortress of virtue—over Vietnam, Israel, dialogue with Communists or whatever—you march, consciously or not, in the company of slaveowners. You are propelled, as if by magic—certainly less by logic than by emotion— into the Stalinist camp.16 ‘Liberal’ intellectuals can’t distinguish between the rival fanaticisms of those who wish to escape the concentration camp and those plotting to erect them. ‘They find the rule of the indoctrinated gorilla indistinguishable from passionate opposition to it.’17 To be open-minded, flexible, ready to negotiate, internationalist, is seen as dangerously soft, conferring respectability on the enemy, and giving him a weakness to exploit. Yet for pragmatic liberals, a less inhibited approach is not tantamount to declaring communism licit, but rests on the view that we must deal with issues and proposals on their merits, and recognize the tenacity—but not necessarily the virtue—of communist states. It is not the prelude to a love affair.
Critics, stirrers, liberals even, are often portrayed as un-Australian. In much conservative literature the underlying image is that of a virgin, contented and unified Australia, free of the vices and the incivility which characterize old, effete countries. Australian nationalism is reborn to kill diversity: that old Utopia of free, proud men disappears, to be replaced by the conservative vision of the morally pure, superpatriotic state. According to Sholl, hostile newspaper cartoonists are out of place here: ‘Their style is foreign to Australia and imitates the savage crudity of the older cartoonists of the communist broadsheets, among which at least one of them grew up.’18 Dissident university groups want to stage a confrontation, a sit-in, ‘or some other un-Australian performance borrowed and imitated from the campuses of a foreign country.’19 Sholl invokes the ordinary Australian, who regards mass demonstrations as ‘adolescent, foreign and anachronistic’. Or the NSW Police Commissioner (Mr Allen) complains after a Moratorium march in Sydney that people speedily came forward ‘to criticize their policemen against a rabble whose interests are foreign to our own’. By such chauvinistic sleight-of-hand, such scrupulous intellectual isolationism, the self-appointed scrutineers of un-Australian Activities classify as alien that of which they disapprove. Thereby they keep Australia—the ‘real’ Australia—clean. Like proud obsessive parents whose children must love and be true to them, they can explain estrangement only as the result of alien influence.
To show why I regard these views of social change and conflict as heavily impregnated with myth, I need to analyse them briefly against my own view of the facts—though this counterposition will not seem compelling to those who will regard me as simply a rival myth-maker, peddling my own implausible fantasies.
First, social unrest and continuing social criticism are in my view characteristic and desirable features of any liberal order, which will not be able to satisfy all the diverse, conflicting claims and demands which are made upon it, especially in times of quick but uneven change. Speaking very broadly, I find protest, conflict and rebellion genuine responses to authorities and systems which ignore or suppress real grievances, and stand in the way of those engaged in the endless struggle for a fugitive perfection. Men of all persuasions exercise their democratic rights and try to recruit support, and as every society contains groups with concrete grievances, they often have success—though radical leaders, like any others, may go beyond or manipulate their erstwhile supporters. Conservatives fail to examine the various shortcomings of societies, however, and tend to present the radical as one who begins with, and somehow disrupts, a pristine and unworried contentment. But though he can create castles of air easily enough, serious and troublesome movements only emerge if there is a stratum of grievances, anxieties and hopes upon which he can build.20 Facing what has been called, fairly, a crisis of legitimacy, established powers fumble angrily for explanations of their plight, and blame all manner of things—except themselves, and except those deeper social forces and tendencies which are too complex and too abstract to permit the aggressive personalizations of conflict at which most ruling authorities are adept. They will treat radical leaders as the creators rather than the products and articulators of social malaise, and they will focus unerringly on insurgent crimes, while ignoring those of authority. Thus they will deny their own responsibility, and deny the authenticity or genuineness of protest and revolt.²¹ Their claim that the existing channels for pressure and change are perfectly adequate becomes one more piece of comforting but ultimately dangerous myth-making. We cannot simply assume that our political institutions are sufficiently responsive or generally accessible, and retreat to ‘due process’. Not all doors are open; pressing claims, peacefully made, are fobbed off or ignored; political leaders often vilify dissidents rather than try to grasp the essence of their complaints, or what it is that they express.
Secondly, while there are specific conspiracies which need to be met precisely—though in a range of ways—the full-fledged conspiratorial theory has a very fragile basis. Genuine but tiny threats merge into imaginary ones and provide a ground for grand totalistic pictures and grand responses.22 Subversion becomes a hydra-headed monster, presenting whichever aspect the conservative most despises and fears in his own society—the drug addict, the Moratorium marcher, the hippie, the university agitator, the socialist planner, the emancipated female, the bearded layabout, the radical Trade Union organizer, the social critic, and so on. In the end, having muddled diverse things and merged distinctions, he feels constantly threatened, surrounded by enemies, so that innocent or friendly acts by the ‘foe’ become temptations or tricks of the devil. All is tainted by the original perception, all that he condemns becomes an aspect of conspiracy.23 As separate events are grouped together as the fruits of conspiracy, its effectiveness is exaggerated mightily, as it is by taking self-proclaimed revolutionaries at their own word, and accepting their own (frequently absurd) claims to power and success. The mythologist of the Right, in depicting the enemy, ignores the role of randomness, accident, muddle, ambiguity and spontaneity in human affairs, and the social and institutional limitations on free human action. His fluid, gobbling procrusteanism allows him to incorporate everything on his own terms. Removing the shades and the subtleties, his crude polarities destroy other and equally significant distinctions, while the perception of deviants as functional if unconscious parts of the conspiracy keeps the enemy camp full.
Finally, the Rightist myth matches that of the far Left in its extreme romantic perfectionism, in the assumption that social and political problems and conflicts are not endemic, but can be ended—perhaps forever—if certain malcontents are flushed or weeded out. Norman Cohn has stressed the superficiality of the views of conflict and division shared by millenialists, radical or conservative. He remarks on their ‘refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissension, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral. . . .24 Deprived of his Utopian goal, the mythologist reaches for his list of evil and guilty men. But the chances of perfection seem no stronger whether we hang the last aristocrat with the entrails of the last priest, the last capitalist with the entrails of the last bureaucrat, or the last Trade Union radical with the entrails of the last university anarchist.
Professor Graeme Duncan was head of the Politics Department, the University of Adelaide.
- To be specific, my sample of myth-makers includes such national politicians as Malcolm McKay, Malcolm Fraser, John McLeay and W. C. Wentworth; such state politicians as Askin and Bjelke-Petersen; such academics as David Armstrong, Colin Clark and James McAuley; and such pontificating knights as Reginald Sholl, Irving Benson, Mellis Napier, Philip Baxter and Raphael Cilento. It also includes the DLP-NCC complex. It should be emphasized that Australia’s extreme Right (Eric Butler and the League of Rights) holds less fantastic beliefs than its American counterpart, the John Birch Society, with its charges of Communist domination of the American Government, the Communist Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and the detailed blueprint for a complete communist takeover-although Eric Butler, did, in a moment of rare inspiration, portray Hitler as an agent in the Jewish conspiracy. I am not claiming that all whom I have mentioned are identical ideologically, or that their views have no merits, or that they lack ability-and complexity. But they have what are, from my view, blind and wild patches and sudden descents into fantasy. I am concerned with certain broad mythical assumptions, and with a body of ideas which has many shades and sides. Frank Knopfelmacher, while sharing many of the absurd Rightist beliefs about Communists and fellow-travellers in Australia, is clearly distinct from the spokesmen of the Right in his commitment to social democracy and to standard liberal policies on censorship, homosexuality, birth control and the like.
- For two semi-academic examples of this genre, which is really a species of polemics, see Lewis Feuer’s The Conflict of Generations: The Character and Significance of Student Movements and Frank Knopfelmacher’s Intellectuals and Politics.
- The psychological need is for specific and concrete targets—evil personified, rather than abstractions or objective historical forces. Consequently, explanations make immediate sense and solutions seem easy. Lewis Coser relates the psychological need to group insecurity: ‘The degrouped man, by directing his diffuse hostility upon a specific target and then attributing his sense of menace to this target group, attempts to find a solid point of repair in a world that otherwise makes no sense to him.’—The Functions of Social Conflict, London, 1968, 108.
- For a favourable account of a successful conservative attempt to prevent ‘moral decline’— the staging of Oh Calcutta in Adelaide—see No No Calcutta. Whether the struggle resembles that of David against Goliath, or that of the Puritan witch-hunters in New England, must be left to the reader to decide.
- Liberalism is often blamed. Sir Reginald Sholl described and implicitly supported the popular belief that the liberal actually advocates, or approves of, the acts which he takes to be legally permissible on his principles, e.g. homosexuality between consenting adults. Australian, 30 September 1971.
- ‘Standards’ (The Sir Richard Stawell Oration for 1970), The Medical Journal of Australia, 14 November, 1970, 801.
- The League’s arm in rural areas is the Institute of Economic Democracy, which explains the ‘ rural crisis in terms of the international Communist-Jewish financial conspiracy. The League comes closest in Australia to that paradigm extremist movement which appeals to those who feel insecure, unfulfilled and persecuted, and who need to identify an outside source for their .failure, and to kick at something. Its style is different from that of the more comfortable spokesmen of the Right.
- That menace spawns some formidable defensive organizations. One of the most sublime, an off-shoot of the League of Rights, is Lilac—Ladies in League against Communism.
- Quoted in The Sunday Australian (‘When it’s Lilac Time in the Sunshine State’), 18 July 1971.
- For an old example of this allegation, which is, characteristically, unsubstantiated, see Colin Clark, Australian Hopes and Fears (London, 1958). Clark claimed then that Communist influence in the universities was very strong. ‘It’s influential supporters are found among the supposedly educated—teachers, journalists, civil servants, clergymen’ (page 233). It is remarkable that dissent survives at all, given its apparent limitation to the ‘supposedly educated’, ‘the half-educated’ and ‘so-called intellectuals’. Clark added that many Australian university teachers ‘preach various brands of Marxism’ (page 297). This was certainly not my impression at the time, though the difference is understandable if Clark regards independent thought as Marxism.
- ‘The working of the machinery of the ALP constitutes in Australia, in the opinion of well-informed critics, a real and present danger of Communism’ (Clark, 313). He doesn’t say who the well-informed critics are, but one can guess.
- Sholl, Medical Journal, op. cit., pp. 897 and 899.
- Press interview. The Australian, 7 August 1969. The phrase, ‘It is no coincidence’ is an interesting and ominous one. The Russians characteristically begin their efforts to connect the disconnected, and thus to blacken dissent, with ‘It is no accident that. . . .’ Incidentally, changes within, and conflicts between. Communist states have muddled the mythologists of the Right, and made the villain harder to identify. It was easier when one could speak of a monolithic Communist bloc, and of the communist as an amoral bureaucrat without ties to his own country—and, indeed, such an image persisted long after the realities had changed.
- The Australian, 3 March 1970.
- The Australian, 28 July 1970.
- Two points often merge in claims that such linkages exist—that ideologically the relevant groups are already in the same camp, or that it is only a short step from one to the other, and that it is realistic to expect that step to be taken. Eric Campbell, in attacking Lang’s socialism, assumed both, but stressed the second—that it was ‘only one step from Lang’s Socialization to outright Communism’, that ‘if Lang-Plan Socialism came into operation, Marxian Communism would be the next step!’ (The Rallying Point, Melbourne, 1965, 67). Campbell constantly asserts the soundness, responsibility and loyalty of the New Guard, but shows little sympathy with the extreme Right, ‘trying to keep their money bags intact’ (126).
- Knopfelmacher, Intellectuals and Politics, Melbourne, 1968, 128-9. This is an utter misstatement of what I take to be the typical and familiar ‘liberal view’, which is opposed to the rule of any fanatics whatsoever, but hates anti-Communist as much as Communist concentration camps. It is not prepared to support violent, authoritarian regimes because they claim to be anti-Communist. But Dr Knopfelmacher, in assaulting liberal intellectuals, does not tell us of whom he speaks.
- Sholl, 898.
- Sholl, 900.
- Peter Coleman (School Power in Australia, Sydney, 1970) succumbs to the temptation to divorce radical agitation from its social environment. Coleman finds ‘experienced political manipulators’—revolutionaries or communists-—behind unrest in the schools. Their ‘real objects’ go well beyond issues of education and authority in the schools. But, failing to see the genuine complaints, the valid criticisms and the idealism which emerge in the school environment, and are not created from outside it, he cannot begin to make sense of what he describes as a transition from the battle against the school uniform to the larger revolutionary struggle.
- It is hardly surprising that extremist myths, whether the work of religious fundamentalists or of political left or right, are similar in structure or form. Evaluations largely determine the character of explanations, so that the Left is quite capable of its own conspiracy theories when an authority of which it approves is under attack, or authorities of which it disapproves remain in power. Thus unrest in Russia and Eastern Europe is portrayed as the work of counter-revolutionaries, hooligans and the mentally unwell, who are put increasingly in psychiatric institutions to be cured of their individuality. Again, manipulation is, according to Vulgar Marxists, the source of the survival of capitalist elites. All extremist myths are tight, closed systems, containing a demonology, and implying a strategy of seeking out small groups of villains in order to return to harmony. In this respect the Commissars of Left, Right and Centre belong together.
- Thus the curious provincial episode when Steele Hall, then Premier of South Australia, opposed (with his party) the appointment of a distinguished Communist lawyer, Elliott Johnston, as QC. Mr Hall referred among other things to the rape of Czechoslavakia (which Mr Johnston himself had condemned strongly) and stated that he wasn’t going to be ‘a wooden horse for the influence of Communism in South Australia’. In fact. Communist penetration of the state seemed exceedingly remote, independently of Mr Johnston’s fate.
- Given the range of conspiracy and evil, the myth-maker of the Right must wonder about his own purity, the state of his own soul, and perhaps himself hears the whispers and blandishments of the Devil at times.
- The Pursuit of the Millenium, London, 1957, 309.