A dinner in Sydney tonight, to be addressed by John Howard, will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Quadrant magazine, now edited by Paddy McGuinness but long known as the most intellectual organ of the right in Australia. Its history is reviewed in a long feature in today’s Australian by Owen Harries and Tom Switzer.

Quadrant‘s golden age was its early years, when during the Cold War it stood out as the proponent of a intelligent, principled anti-communism. Harries and Switzer tell how its founding editor, Richard Krygier, battled a hostile intellectual climate with the aid of a distinguished group of writers – and covert funding from the CIA.

Since then, and especially since the fall of communism, Quadrant has struggled to retain relevance. Harries and Switzer acknowledge that it “has had its ups and downs”, and mention “clashes of personalities”. But they fail to appreciate the basic dilemma that publications like Quadrant face.

Anti-communism depended on an alliance between conservatives and liberals: although philosophical enemies, they recognised that they faced a common threat, and could unite on a common program of defending western democracy. The conservative side was always the more prominent at Quadrant, but most of the time they were too busy with communism to turn their fire on the liberals.

In the last twenty years, things have changed. Communism and old-style socialism have mostly disappeared, leaving conservatives and liberals to face each other in the trenches. Quadrant has continued to produce some work of high quality, but the sort of liberals who would once have seen it as an ally in the greater struggle are now its main target.

Harries and Switzer seem oblivious to this. They see themselves as promoting “conservative ideas and those of classical liberalism”, without realising how deep the contradiction is between them.

Only at the end is there a backhanded recognition of some of the divisions at work, and the fact that the Australian right has moved into such extreme territory that even many conservatives have become uncomfortable with it. Former Quadrant editor Robert Manne broke with his former associates over their denial of Aboriginal genocide, and Harries himself has become one of the most acute critics of the Iraq war.

Quadrant remains, in Harries and Switzer’s words, “capable of starting vigorous controversy”. That’s not all we want from an intellectual magazine, but it’s better than nothing.

Peter Fray

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