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.

11 thoughts on “Quadrant at 50

  1. Many interesting magazines don’t get past the one-year barrier; most have a high period of, say, twenty years. If Quadrant folds after, say, 60 years, it will have had a great run.

    Incidentally, I’m sure they could boost audience numbers so easily: update their website, hiring an IT/design person to give it the once over (it’s amazing what a few simple html/java tricks will do) – maybe even put in a few blog links.

    Oh, and change the effing HIDEOUS cover design/layout that they have at the moment.


  2. I watched a Soviet motor-rifle division on manoevres near the Helmstedt-Marienborn crossing into East Germany in 1987. I was 17. It certainly helped focus my political views. I read Quadrant.


  3. Hey wait a minute, Tim aren’t you under 30? Guess I do know someone under 30 who reads Quadrant. But you’re the only one.

    I know myself, but I’ve never read Quadrant.


  4. I’ve read Quadrant in the past, though always from the serials section of the library, I’ve never bought a copy. The index is its most useful tool—as befits a publication well past its best years.
    I disagree about the benefits of conservatives and liberals having their battles on the Quadrant pages, Andrew. The style of editorial under PP McGuinness, alas, makes the Green Left Weekly read like a bastion of ecumenism and free-thinking: it’s really really hard to read conservatives laying into each other for perceived deficiencies in their ‘line’.


  5. Liam – I agree, Paddy’s editorials should be axed. But the fact that someone like him who is basically a libertarian is editing a magazine to which conservatives contribute shows the potential.

    The big danger, as Tim alludes to, is that it becomes a magazine for cantankerous old men, even if some of them are old beyond their actual years.


  6. I found Switzer and Harries’ claim that conservatism was on the back foot in the 1950s to be a rather extraordinary one. Can this really be backed up with facts?
    Menzies held government, the Communist Party was almost outlawed and ASIO spied on left-wingers. If that’s conservatism on the back foot, then what’s the front foot?
    Even if the left already “controlled” universities in the 1950s and 1960s (and I’d like to see the evidence), that’s really not a winning position compared with the holding the levers of government and the media. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.


  7. It might be fair to say that communists and fellow-travellers had an influence and prestige they lack today, through their involvement in the ALP, some unions, and the intellectual world. But of course they never really came close to seizing power.


  8. Hey — you have your own blog. I hadn’t noticed. There you go.

    As a libertarian in the Liberal (ie conservative) party I can see why Andrew continues to hope that the marriage wont brake up. But as conservatives take us slowly towards a bigger welfare/warfare state I can’t see the value in real classical liberals ties thier flag to that mast. Let the war begin.

    I don’t read it regularly — but I have bought and read Quadrant before. And I will soon have published there (an article, funnily enough, that Andrew rejected for Policy). And I’m under 30.


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