FRANK KNOPFELMACHER: SELECTED WRITINGS by Andrew Knopfelmacher

Connor Court Publishing Pty Ltd, 2024

ISBN:  97819232241

RRP: $32.25 (pb)

Reviewed by Gerard Henderson

 

 

I remember the sense of disappointment experienced when Frank Knopfelmacher’s first and – as it turned out – only book was released in 1968.  It was titled Intellectuals and Politics with Nelson (Australia) as the publisher.

Like quite a few academics and students at the University of Melbourne at the time, I bought a copy at the campus bookshop on the day of release.  On opening Intellectuals and Politics, however, I discovered that it was not a book in the normal sense of the term. But, rather, a collection of five essays – the first two and most substantial were new – the remainder previously published.  None of these five essays are reprinted in Frank Knopfelmacher:  Selected Writings.

My disappointment did not last long. On reading Intellectuals and Politics, I realised that the author was primarily an essayist – someone who, in an earlier generation, would have been called a pamphleteer.  That is, a polemicist in written and spoken form.

I got to know Frank Knopfelmacher (1923-1995) at Melbourne University in the mid-1960s. He was a lecturer in the Philosophy Department – a subject I did not study in my combined Arts-Law degree. However, I attended his lunch-time lectures and later organised many of his campus talks in my capacity as president of the Melbourne University Democratic Labor Party Club.  I also attended some courses he took on political philosophy at the Council of Adult Education (CAE) in the Melbourne CBD.

Reviewing this book in The Weekend Australian on 1 June 2024, the author Paul Monk wrote that he took Knopfelmacher’s Classical Social Theory class in 1979 in the Department of Psychology and described Franta as “one of the best educators” he ever had.

Knopfelmacher was a brilliant polemicist – on the page and in lecture theatre as well as during his media appearances.  This was evident in his essays in Intellectuals and Politics as well as this post-mortem collection edited by his son Andrew Knopfelmacher.

The editor has chosen 30 essays – from 1958 until 1993 with most being written in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  The first, and most important essay in this collection, titled “My Political Education”, was published in Quadrant magazine in July-August 1967.  It was a talk given to an Australian Association for Cultural Freedom conference on personal experiences of communism.

Franta was born in Vienna and brought up in the Czechoslovakian provincial town of Monrovia.  He described his family as Czech-German-Jewish bourgeoise.  As a teenager, Franta was influenced by Karl Marx. He did a popular  CAE course on the German-born philosopher who died in London in 1883 – some three decades before the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the establishment of the inaugural communist totalitarian regime in late 1917.  Another early influence was Max Weber (1864-1920). An essay on the German sociologist was published in Knopfelmacher’s Intellectuals and Politics.

When Nazi Germany finally occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Knopfelmacher was “convinced that the Nazis were going to exterminate us all”. He maintained that he always had an “intuitive understanding of the totalitarian mentality” as one of his “intellectual assets”. And added: “I think I have never been wrong on anything connected with totalitarianism”. Sadly, Franta’s entire family was murdered during the Holocaust.

Leaving Czechoslovakia, Knopfelmacher migrated to the British Mandate in Palestine – where he joined the Communist Party in January 1942. Soon after, as a soldier in the Czech Army in the Middle East, he took part in the Allied campaign against the German Army.  The unit soon moved to Britain. Here Franta read George Orwell and Arthur Koestler and fought with the British Army in France after D-Day.   Around this time, he turned against the Communist Party and communist totalitarianism.

After the war, Knopfelmacher returned to Czechoslovakia, studying at Charles University in Prague.  But he fled Czechoslovakia again – this time in August 1948 to escape another form of totalitarianism, that of the communist kind.  He returned to England graduating with first class honours in Philosophy & Psychology from Bristol University and with a Ph.D. from University College, London.  He wrote this in 1967 about his experience at Bristol University:

Despite the fact that Bristol was a liberal and progressive University (it had Communist and left wingers on the staff), it was non-corrupt and properly run….  I have seen some other universities since leaving Bristol and I am always astounded at the fact that the term University can be used for such diverse institutions, both morally and intellectually.  It is like calling both a Pekinese dog and a St Bernard dog, dog.

Earlier, in praising Professor Guy Cromwell Field – an academic at Bristol – he commented:

Field was a socialist. He was involved in debates on Guild Socialism after the first world war and was strongly anti-Tory though he looked like a Punch cartoon of the Tory military gentleman.  He had a fairly good military record from the first world war and was a descendant of Oliver Cromwell, though it seemed that the family had settled down to manufacturing soap.

Knopfelmacher’s wit is evident on the printed page.  It was devastating in the spoken word – since Franta was a fine performer with a great sense of timing.

Knopfelmacher was appointed a lecturer in psychology at the University of Melbourne in 1955.  At the time, there was a strong communist presence on the campus, especially in the social sciences.  There were even Communist Party of Australia cells at the university.  It was not long before Franta was warning of communism. As he wrote in 1967:

When I came to Melbourne my first social contacts were with philosophers who were on the whole left-liberal and accepted me as one of them.  They felt I was a good philosopher and psychologist unfortunately burdened by certain political eccentricities which ought to be disregarded. They kept on disregarding them until the 1960s [when he spoke about communist influence in the university] and then of course I was dropped.  It is interesting that my political views and prognostications, which I felt to be based on empirical and rational considerations, were brushed off by the local spokesmen of the rational and empirical culture and taken seriously only by people whom I at that time still regarded as the protagonists of superstition and obscurantism.

And so it came to pass that Knopfelmacher found that the people who understood what he was talking about – Bob  Santamaria, Jim McAuley and Vincent Buckley – and who sympathised with him “were not left-wingers and liberals, but Catholics”.  However, he had nothing but contempt for “Catholic progressives” who gave him “the creeps”. Chapter 5 in this collection is an insightful essay titled “The Catholic Church and totalitarianism”.

Franta remained at Melbourne University until compulsory retirement in 1988 at 65 years of age. In 1965, he was appointed a senior lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Sydney. However, the appointment was overruled by the Professional Board – a decision which was upheld by the Sydney University Senate. Franta had references from leading philosophers in Australia, Britain and the United States.  But opposition to his appointment at the Professorial Board was led by two left-wing professors who taught, respectively, Italian and Engineering.

Knopfelmacher’s appointment was spiked when attention was drawn to an article by him in the magazine 20th Century which was published in 1964.  The essay is re-printed in Chapter 6.  It is a fine polemical piece of writing.  But it also demonstrates Knopfelmacher’s tendency for overstatement.  Such as his comment “like rats, they [the university left] wish to operate in the dark”.  At times, Franta had a problem with tone – which was used against him.  However, Knopfelmacher’s rejection by Sydney University on political grounds demonstrated his point that it was the left, not conservatives, who were the principal opponents of academic freedom.

Knopfelmacher was consistently critical of communism. He supported the Australian commitment in Vietnam in 1965 in support of South Vietnam in opposition to communist North Vietnam. He correctly predicted the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 – at a time when many left-liberals were advocating détente between the West and the Soviet Union.

Initially not a Zionist, Knopfelmacher strongly supported Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War.  In late 1967 (see Chapter 8) he foresaw that Israel’s victory in 1967 over Egypt, Jordan and Syria would lead to Jews losing their status as victims and friends of the left.  This has never been more evident than now with the opposition among the left to Israel’s action in defending itself against Hamas’ terrorist attack on 7 October 2023, and its stated intent to destroy the Jewish state.

Along with most Christians, Knopfelmacher believed that we live in a Valley of Tears (see Chapter 11) and in the imperfectability of mankind.  He was no utopian.  And he was imperfect, like the rest of us.

Knopfelmacher was an obsessive personality who constantly stated his views – every morning, every night and frequently during the day.  Including in multiple phone calls to supporters during a single evening. Moreover, he clashed not only with his ideological opponents but also with some supporters – and they clashed with him.

Above all, Franta was a man of great intellectual courage who had a significant influence on many Australians – some of whom became influential in their own right.  He was a pessimist – but not an unrealistic one.  Just as Knopfelmacher correctly identified the evil of Nazism, he also consistently warned of communism – and would not have been surprised by developments in Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China today.

Also, Franta was a perceptive commentator.  Selected Writings contains sharp assessments of the likes of Orwell, Koestler, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Malcolm Muggeridge, George Kennan, Paul Johnson, Noam Chomsky, Norman Podhoretz, Henry Kissinger and more besides.

In his critique of contemporary universities in 1972 (Chapter 22) Knopfelmacher argued that “the war in Indo-China was lost in the Western universities” by “the treason of the clerks” – a term invented by the French philosopher Julien Benda to describe the intelligentsia.  This influence is relevant in current Israel-Hamas conflict where large sections of the left-intelligentsia have opposed Israel, including some who have embraced anti-semitism and even the terrorist organisation Hamas.

An essay on the fourteenth anniversary of Orwell’s 1984, Knopfelmacher confessed to cultural pessimism as a symptom of “personal disappointment and ageing”.  And in the final essay in this book – a speech delivered in mid-1993, before the onset of his serious illness, he described his “only remaining duty” as “to warn”.

Franta accepted the label that he was a “threat expert” with a certain pride.  His published work – primarily in the conservative Quadrant magazine, the left-wing weekly Nation Review, News Weekly, 20th Century and The Australian, which are re-published in this book, will hold up well. Frank Knopfelmacher’s influence will remain – and his essays will be read – when his left-wing critics are long forgotten.

Andrew Knopfelmacher’s edited collection reminds us that Franta was not only courageous but also mightily interesting.  Australia was fortunate that he arrived in Melbourne seven decades ago.  Knopfelmacher was the best known personality on the Melbourne University campus in the 1960s and 1970s – quite an achievement for a migrant who arrived in Australia in 1955 and for whom English was not a first language.

My favourite take from Frank Knopfelmacher: Selected Essays is this assessment of academic life – from his October 1982 Quadrant essay on Koestler:

  • A professional is not one who knows more about an academic subject than an amateur, but one who is familiar with the daily chores, swindles, arm-twistings and gimmicks on the low and middle levels of an academic workplace.
  • Psychology, sociology, and – the most bizarre of them all – political “science” departments (at their best cosy sheltered workshops for journalists who cannot write) are not arenas of titanic struggles between rival Weltanschauungen [views of life], but strange bazaars without real trade, in which incessant haggling for carpets, secretaries, gadgets, trips, leaves and a large variety of funny monies is taking place. They call it “research” and it is supposed to be impeded by “teaching”.

This important book demonstrates that, above all, Knopfelmacher was a brilliant teacher – both within and outside the academy.

Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of The Sydney Institute & author of Cardinal Pell, The Media Pile-On & Collective Guilt (Connor Court, New Updated Edition, 2021).