Quadrant at 50

Tonight in Sydney Quadrant is celebrating its 50th birthday. In The Australian this morning, Owen Harries and Tom Switzer offer high praise. Noting the now ‘mainstream’ nature of conservative ideas, they say that we should thank Quadrant for its part in this change:

Quadrant is the most successful and influential magazine of ideas in Australia’s history.

In Crikey, Charles Richardson is more critical. After noting its golden days as an anti-communist journal, he says:

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.

I’m inclined to agree that Quadrant’s golden years are behind it, though this is as much due to changed technology as changed intellectual circumstances. Blogs and essays on the internet can attract much wider audiences than a $7.50 monthly magazine printed on newsprint and with terrible covers, depriving Quadrant (and other little magazines) of both writers and readers. I don’t know of anyone under 30 who reads Quadrant , so demography is very much against it in the long term.

But I disagree with Charles on the liberalism and conservatism issue. The Harries and Switzer piece does blur them more than it should, and Charles correctly notes that there are tensions between the two ideologies. But this is an opportunity for Quadrant rather than a problem. There is no need for it to be a house journal for one view or the other, and in practice it is one of the few places where in-depth liberal and conservative views can both be read.

For many on the right, this debate is as much a working out of their own inner tensions as a clash between rival tribes. If anything challenges liberal anti-paternalist views it is remote Indigenous communities, on which Tony Abbott wrote in the September issue. John Stone offered a characteristically blunt assessment of what he calls the ‘Muslim problem’, which is posing the largest intellectual and practical challenges for liberal tolerance in decades. The magazine has published many conservative views on what’s happening to the universities, but also Max Corden’s excellent liberal critique of higher education policy.

I doubt Quadrant will celebrate its 100th, but there is still a role for it.

Update: For us over 30s (actually, it’s probably mid-30s – the dividing line is likely to between those whose political views were shaped by the Cold War, ie born in the early 1970s or before, and those whose political views were formed after the collapse of European communism that began in late 1989) the IPA is also holding a Quadrant turns 50 function, on 19 October. Ken Minogue, whose lucid and insightful essays once graced the pages of Quadrant and its now-defunct upmarket English equivalent, Encounter, will also be there.