What is Political Correctness ?
The Pros and Cons
Peter Coleman

Some three years ago I edited a book about the state of liberalism in Australia. The contributors were journalists, editors, poets, a dramatist, a novelist who were all disconcerted by the decline - one might say the slide-away - of the liberalism of the 1960’s into a dogmatic and conformist, even bullying, ideology. Their chapters were critical reexaminations of multiculturalism, feminism, gay liberation, state patronage of the arts, the United Nations and so on. We called the book Double Take and, without planning it that way, we more-or-less agreed that our target was probably Political Correctness.

The book was well enough received, but there was one persistent complaint : no one quite knew what we, or anyone else, meant by Political Correctness. You can understand the complaint. Even within the same country the term has different meanings. it also has different meanings or shades of meaning in different countries. Political Correctness is one thing in South Africa and something else in Australia or America. There is something there. The idea has some meaning, The trouble is that no one is quite sure what it is.

For some it is simply a jape, a few light-hearted euphemisms. We have all heard the jokes: You do not say the man is dead, only that he is metabolically challenged. Some take it a little more seriously as a principled opposition to belittling jibes at someone’s race or disability or sexual preference, or simply as a short-hand for undermining vested interests or prejudices. For them ‘affirmative action’ is a matter of fairness, of correcting past injustice. This is the liberal view of political Correctness.

But others take a far less benign view. Earlier this year a prominent American commentator, Paul Weyrich, published a desperate open letter - of some 1800 words - lamenting the hegemony in America of what he called Political Correctness. He sees American culture as literally approaching barbarism. He attributes this to what he calls Political Correctness His alternative name for it is Cultural Marxism - that is, Marxism without the economics but retaining the determination to destroy bourgeois morality and to enforce Correct values. For him and like-minded critics it is a pervasive, comprehensive and dangerous social movement. This is the conservative view of Political Correctness.

It is not easy to reconcile these various usages. For this reason some critics say the concept should be, or will be, or has been abandoned I don’t agree. Political Correctness may be complex and ambiguous but it remains a useful concept.

The view I want to put is that Political Correctness is a heresy of liberalism. It emerges where liberalism and leftism intersect. What began as a liberal assault on injustice has come to denote, not for the first time, a new form of injustice. Liberals have often suffered at the hands of dogmatists who have wanted to reduce their open-mindedness and civility to a formal or rigid code or blue-print. In the 18th century they were the philosophes of the Enlightenment and in the 19th century the apostles of science. Today they are the Politically Correct.


It helps to go back to the moment when the issue emerged and see what went wrong. This may also intimate what we may or should do about it now. It means examining the travails of the left in the 20th century, because my hypothesis is that Political Correctness is a leftist distortion of liberalism.

There have been three chapters in the story. The first was the age of the Fellow Travellers, the liberal admirers of the Soviet Union in the 1930’s. They saw ‘the Soviet experiment’ as an alternative to the social order that had produced the slaughter of millions in the World War, the suffering of more millions in the Depression, and the rise of Nazism and Fascism. The good news - or terrible illusion - of a fresh start in a new civilisation was broadcast by and through a great international network of communist fronts which seemed to give a sort of meaning, however empty, to the lives of millions.

This dreadful episode lasted for 20 or 30 years - from from the Popular Front of 1935 through to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and even to the Prague Spring in 1968 and its suppression by the Red Army.

The Fellow Traveller on his pilgrimage to the Soviet Union or its satellites ignored the show trials, the persecution of dissidents, the slave camps, the famines. Everyone has his metaphor for this madness - George Bernard Shaw throwing his basket of food from his train as it reached the Soviet border because he knew there was no food shortage in the Soviet Union and that reports of famine in Russia and the Ukraine were capitalist propaganda.

Or Sidney and Beatrice Webb gushing over the White Sea Canal, and ridiculing any suggestion that it was built by slaves, 100,000 of whom died in one winter.

Or the U. S. Ambassador Davies explaining that the judicial murders in the Moscow show trials were justice and truth at work - a view eagerly taken up by Hollywood in the film Mission to Moscow, starring Walter Huston as Ambassador Davies.

There were one or two setbacks in this age of the Fellow Travellers, notably Stalin’s alliance with Hitler. But by 1944/45 Sovietisation seemed to be clearly the wave of the future and some objective observers expected to see Soviet tanks rolling through the streets of Paris and Rome, Peking and Calcutta some time soon. Many thought it prudent to adjust to this supposed reality.

But if the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 marked the end of liberal patience with the Kremlin-directed Communist parties of the world, it did not weaken the left-wing. It strengthened it. The second chapter now opened: the age of the New Left and the Counter­Culture, without the baggage of the Soviet Union.

The New Left still defended the Soviet Union - as as a socialist state that had abolished the market and private property. It saw no reason to celebrate its gradual decline and fall. But it was always more critical of the USSR than the Old Left had been.

In these years its popular base, broadening out from politics to the counterculture, was fuelled by the widespread sense of the sterility of life and culture in the democratic and Americanised world. ‘The movement’ included gentle drop-outs and vicious terrorists. The utopian or libertarian temptation - the renunciation of dead traditions, restraints, conventions, laws, authorities - now replaced the totalitarian temptation of the Fellow Travellers. Its weapons ranged from flower power and the drug culture to street violence, and its great targets were the Vietnam war and the Universities.

As with the Fellow Travellers, there were many defining moments or metaphors of madness--from parades celebrating Viet Cong victories to the student demonstrators’ occupation of university offices while academic administrators loudly praised their idealism - as if inspired by Martin Heidegger’s rectoral address to Nazi students at the University of Marburg in May 1933 when he stirred his audience by calling on it to repudiate the old discredited German liberalism and join Hitler in the reorganisation of thought and action. ‘German students are already on the march,’ he declared, and their teachers should join them! The violence, the confrontation inevitably spluttered out, especially with the end of the Vietnam War. But the American defeat in that war gave heart and morale to the New Left in the years that followed. When the tide turned again, and a conservative revival seemed imminent, the tribunes of the New Left and the counter-culture saw no reason to abandon their basic creed. Their society and its traditions remained repugnant. But they revised strategy and tactics.

They were indeed more successful than the Old Left in penetrating established institutions. The grand old causes--from defence of the Soviet Union or the Vietnam War through to workers’s control of industry or the welfare state--had lost their allure. But ‘the long march through the institutions’ now began, especially through the universities, the civil service, the quangos, the media, the churches. The disdain for consumer capitalism, for traditional family values, for conventional schooling and child-rearing, the distrust of the idea of absolute truth and of ‘bourgeois’ civility, the celebration of radical feminism and a new pornography continued.

We now enter the era of Political Correctness.


It is time to define Political Correctness a little more closely. Its first and preeminent characteristic is that it calls for the politicisation - one might say te transformation - of life. It wants political direction of all departments from, say, children’s fiction to judicial judgments. No profession is exempt. All must meet a political test - of correct thinking and progress. Lawyers, accountants, doctors, scientists, novelists, journalists and businessmen must all pass it.

Secondly, the Politically Correct are more intolerant of dissent than traditional liberals or even conservatives. Liberals of earlier generations accepted unorthodoxy as normal. Indeed the right to differ was a datum of classical liberalism. The Politically Correctors do not give that right a high priority. It distresses their programmed minds. Those who do not conform should be ignore, silenced or vilified. There is a kind of soft totalitarianism about Political Correctness.

Thirdly, the Politically Correct are self-righteous in a quasi-religious spirit.. A sort of vanguard of enlightenment, they do not accept the judgment of voters (unenlightened) or consumers (selfish) and are prepared to impose reforms against the public will, You can’t make an omelette’, as someone used to say,’ without breaking eggs.’

Fourthly, Political Correctness aims to achieve its objectives without violence, It is not ruled out entirely. It is tolerated or even encouraged in certain circumstances. But it is not necessary or fundamental.

Fifthly, the Politically Correct are less interested in business and the economy than in the culture and the guiding ideas of a society. They know that they will never win the economic argument in open debate. Indeed they have lost it. The Market has triumphed over the Plan. So they will leave the economy to business provided they control the culture, the guiding ideas of the society. In Britain it is called the Third Way : a Thatcherite economy combined with the Rebranding of Britain.

The Australian case is a good one. All governments in Australia in recent years have been committed to deregulation, privatisation and free trade. Labor Governments sometimes pursued these policies more enthusiastically than conservatives. But in all other departments of life, they promoted and if necessary subsidised Political Correctness - in schools and universities, the media and the arts, the churches and the quangos. You create the wealth, they said to business, we will change the national identity. You can have economic rationalism. We will re-brand society. You deliver prosperity. Political Correctness will be the official ideology of Australia.

Deviation was discouraged. When a prominent historian Geoffrey Blainey dared to question the dogmas of multiculturalism, or a respected philosopher, David Stove, to criticise affirmative action, or an acclaimed poet Kate Jennings to doubt feminist poetry, they were, in Jennings’ words, ‘bazooka’d’ : ‘Stick your head out of the trench and it will be bazooka’d off in no uncertain fashion.’ The country’s most famous poet Les Murray referred to the ‘quasi-totalitarian consensus’ of Australian life.

The Keating government especially sponsored the rewriting Australian history to substitute a ‘black armband’ interpretation for the old patriotic or three cheers version. It diminished the European and certainly the British heritage. It encouraged, with disastrous consequences, what amounted to Aboriginal separatism based on race-related and inalienable land rights, separate schooling and a welfare-dependent economy. It belittled the constitution, monarchy and flag.

As it happened, public mood began to move against the Politically Correct. The most popular play in Australian history by the country’s most successful dramatist, David Williamson - in his electoral preferences a committed friend of Labor governments, but in the theatre a playwright of wit and insight - wrote an enormously successful satire called Dead White Males. It pilloried all the canons of Political Correctness from radical multiculturalism, feminism, and social constructivism to post-structuralism, post-modernism and cultural materialism.

At the same time older and more sceptical feminists began ridiculing the new and darker tribes of femocrats, Old greenies, veteran multiculturalists, gay liberationists began to reexamine their dogmas. Family reformers began to acknowledge that easy divorce may destroyed the human rights of children. Even spokesmen for the indigenous began to denounce the welfare dependency which had demoralised the Aborigines to such an extent that their leaders, allies and well-wishers - white or black - could no longer conceal it. My book Double Take was a small straw in the wind.

The new mood found massive popular expression in the general election of 1996. After 13 years in office the Labor government suffered the greatest electoral defeat in the history of the country, greater even than that of the Whitlam Government. The new Prime Minister, John Howard, called openly for an end to Political Correctness. it remains to be seen to what extent he will pursue such an agenda. There is not much to show for it so far. It is a brave soul who is confident about these matters.


What can be done to advance this deconstruction of Political Correctness, to separate its liberalism from its dogmatism ? At the earlier stages in the development of left-liberalism in this century - the fellow-travelling and counter-cultural episodes - a democratic countervailing force emerged. I am not referring here to political parties or churches or even mass movements of one kind or another, important as they are. I mean intellectual movements.

In these contests the role of intellectuals may be crucial. As John Maynard Keynes put it in Book VI of his General Theory of Employment, those hard-headed practical men, who believe themselves exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct intellectual - or as Keynes preferred to see it, some defunct economist.

During the high tide of the comnunist party, the USSR and the Fellow Travellers - those 15 years from 1941 when the Hitler-Stalin pact collapsed through to 1956 and the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution--George Orwell wrote that the effect of the Russian mythos on English life had been so ‘poisonous’ and had involved such suppression and distortion of facts that it was ‘doubtful that a true history of our times can ever be written.’

But in the post-War years one key, countervailing organisation was established, the Congress for Cultural Freedom. In June 1950, as North Korea invaded South Korea, 100 scarred scholars, poets and artists, former inmates of Stalin’s or Hitler’s concentration camps, old refugees or Resistance fighters, gathered in occupied Berlin--to save Western civilisation. However much they disagreed with each other, they shared this one big truth, about Stalin and his Gulag, and they were not prepared to let it prevail.

The Stalinists and the Fellow Travellers denounced them as scum, police informers, or rats (Jean-Paul Sartre’s term), but they no longer feared defamation. They created the Congress for Cultural Freedom to expose totalitarianism and broadcast the truth about the Soviet Union. As Karl Jaspers said at this time, truth also needs its propaganda.

Its ambition went far beyond demonstrations around the world against Soviet harassment or persecution of writers from Pasternak to Solzhenitsyn. The Congress developed four major programmes. One was a continuing series of conferences and follow-up seminars. These put into play a number of leading ideas of the time - the end of ideology; destalinisation; the conditions of economic growth; the Third World.

But more important than the intellectual debates wore the informal personal encounters across national, racial and religious boundaries. The poet W.H.Auden put it well after one Congress conference in Bombay in 1951. These encounters, he said, ‘even if forgotten, may enter the structure and fabric of one’s being.’ They intimated the emergence of a world-wide liberal community, a sort of international brotherhood of free spirits.

The second programme was the setting up in a number of countries across the world a network of national committees - from New Delhi to New York, from Indo-China to Peru. These were an invaluable means of public education at times of crisis such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. But more routinely, through newsletters or seminars or public meetings, they deepened where they could (as in the democracies) and at least kept alive where they were restricted (in, say, Sukarno’s Indonesia) the liberal-democratic ideals of the Congress.

A third programme was primarily directed at Central and East Europe. Its object was to keep in touch with and maintain hope among writers and artists in the Soviet bloc it arranged at their request - and only at their request - to send them books and subscriptions to magazines. It helped them find publishers in the West and arranged travel grants for foreign visits where they could get permission to travel. The programme also helped refugees begin a new life. it was later extended from Eastern Europe to dictatorships in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The French philosopher Raymond Aron told me not long before his death that this Programme was the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s greatest achievement. He always found, he said, more enthusiasm for the Congress in Warsaw and Budapest than in London or Paris.

Another great achievement was the network of excellent magazines of small but influential circulation - Encounter, Survey, Monal, Preuves among the most famous, but also several comparatively minor ones - Michael Polanyi’s Science and Freedom (England), James McAuley’s Quadrant (Australia), Nissim Ezekiel’s Quest (India), Rajat Neogy’s Transition (Uganda), Wole Soyinka’s Black Orpheus (Nigeria) and Ronald Segal’s Africa South (South Africa).

This journalistic international with its unruly editors published many of the best, the most independent writers of the day - from Isaiah Berlin and Robert Conquest to H. R. Trevor Roper and Lionel Trilling. In their contribution to understanding totalitarianism in an age of lies and illusion, and to consolidating liberalism in the 20th century, they were compulsory reading. They are still a rich resource.

Take the three African magazines I have mentioned - Africa South, Transition and Black Orpheus. Ronald Segal began Africa South in 1956 in Cape Town. it was an anti-apartheid quarterly published at his own expense. In 1959 the Congress for Cultural Freedom organised a world-wide support for Segal when the government used its Suppression of Communism Act to prohibit him from attending any ‘gathering’ for the next five years, a ‘gathering’ being construed as two or more persons meeting for any purpose’.

From France to India, from Iceland to Australia, the Congress’s national committees condemned the legislation and its application to Ronald Segai. It also promoted Africa South and began subsiding it.

This continued in 1960 and 1961 when the government declared a State of Emergency in South Africa and Segal moved the magazine to London, renaming it Africa South in Exile. His contributors included Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, Tony O’Dowd, David Marais, Basil Davidson, Cohn Legum, Stanley Uys, Cohn Leys, Anthony Delius, Susanne Wenger. His Aflican writers included Tom Mboya, Julius Nyerere, K. D. Kaunda, Joshua Nkomo, and Ezekiel Mphahlele. British Members of Parliament were also frequent contributors - James Callaghan, Barbara Castle, John Stonehouse, Lord Altrincham, Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

After five years of exposing apartheid, advocating decolonisation, and celebrating African cultures, the magazine finally closed down. In his valedictory issue, Segal thanked ‘those organisations which have given me funds on the clear understanding that their paying would not call the tune.’

Ezekiel Mphahlele also helped other African magazines. One was Transition, a liberal literary-political review which Rajat Neogy, a 30-year-old Uganda-born Bengali, started in Kampala in 1961, shortly before Uganda became independent. After four issues he ran out of funds and appealed for help to Ezekiel Mphahlele who was then a director of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The Congress’s subsidy kept Transition going for the next six years. It became one of the most talked about reviews from Melbourne to Manhattan. Its contributors included John Pepper Clark, James Ngugi (as he then was), Paul Theroux, Gerald Moore, Ahi Mazrui, Conor Cruise O’Brien, James McAuley, and Ezekiel Mphahlele.

Another contributor was Milton Obote - although this made no difference when Transition began criticising Obote’s deepening dictatorship. in October 1968 the police arrested Neogy, charged him with sedition and confined him for six months in a cell 8 by 5 feet. It was the end of Transition. But it remains a legendary achievement.

The third important magazine in this story is Black Orpheus. Ulli Beier, formerly of Berlin, Palestine and England, launched it in Ibadan in 1957. The Congress for Cultural Freedom quickly recognised its vitality as a liberal beachhead in West Africa and agreed to subsidise it Black Orpheus had two objectives : to debate the idea of negritude (of which it became a critic) and to publish African writers from across Africa and the African diaspora in the Americas.

Contributors included Wole Soyipka, Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbu, Aime Cesaire, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and from South Africa Ezekiel Mphahlele, Bloke Medisane, Lewis Nkosi and Dennis Brutus. The magazine also became the hub of a club, gallery, bookshop and library. ‘What kept me going,’ Beier told me years later in Sydney (where he now lives), ‘was the excitement of it all.’ But it could not survive the Nigerian civil war (except in name). Like Transition, its legend survives.


There was an inbuilt flaw in the arrangements of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Its funding, however disguised, came ultimately from the CIA, not only in the emergency of 1949/1950 when there was no alternative, but throughout its 17 years up to its dissolution in 1967. When the facts of this funding were revealed in the middle 1960’s, it was a free kick to the totalitarian Left which now represented the Congress and its supporters as either agents or stooges of an organisation devoted to espionage or worse.

The defamation of many of the most independent and most critical writers of the age continues to this day. A few weeks ago a new book came out called Who Paid the Piper ? which purports to tell the true story of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. But the author has little or no interest in its programmes or achievements. Her interest is in its funding only.

It was a mistake for the CIA to have continued its funding for so long after other sources of funds became available. But the record of the Congress stands. It contributed enormously to destroying the allure of the Soviet Union among intellectuals. It reached liberals that other critics of communism - for example the churches or the conservative political parties - could not influence. It was an historic success.

But its success was limited, as became clear in the 1970’s. The Congress for Cultural Freedom was effective against the propaganda of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party and the Fellow Travellers. It had little to say to the exaltes of the New Left and the counter-culture. But a different sort of response emerged.

Let me briefer on this new development, it is a more recent and more familiar story. What happened would have been unlikely, if not unthinkable, in earlier decades - a revival of democratic conservatism. I know that in South Africa one should be cautious, for more than adequate reasons, about using such words as conservative. Yet it is impossible to consider the political history of other English-speaking countries in recent years without acknowledging a liberal conservative revival.

Two currents of thought came together. The first was the old conservatism that had been eclipsed but never extinguished. It developed in America in the 1950’s in association with William F. Buckley’s National Review. The second was a new or neo-conservatism, the movement of liberals who had been mugged by reality.

These two currents spread beyond their origins and created an intellectually astringent but politically popular movement exemplified by the election of President Ronald Reagan. Neo-conservatives, having grown up on the liberal left, brought to their new cause a better understanding of the left than many traditionalists or paleo-conservatives had. But they also knew they might learn a thing or two from the older conservatives. In his introduction to the symposium Political Passages - a sort of neo-conservative God that Failed - Edward Shils mandated these liberal conservatives to absorb from the older conservatives the values of traditionality, nationality, normality and civility.

This new conservatism was given an organizational base in the development of sympathetic think-tanks and foundations and the growth of a network of magazines of high standard, small circulation and great influence - such magazines as The National Interest in Washington DC, The New Criterion or Commentary in New York or, Commentaire in Paris, The Salisbury Review in London, and, may I say, Quadrant in Sydney, to mention only a few out of dozens.

These conservative think-tanks and magazines took the fight to the New Left and the counter-culture. They won the intellectual high ground in this contest and contributed enormously to convincing public opinion and to helping liberal-conservative parties win elections.

As the U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan, a Democrat, put it after one Reaganite victory : ‘The republicans simply left us behind. They became the party of ideas the Democrats were left in [Thomas Babington] Macaulay’s phrase, the Stupid Party’. They even managed to make the word conservative respectable again, even if not in South Africa.

But if the New Left and the counter-culture retreated, they still did not admit defeat. They simply became Politically Correct. This has become, not a greater but a more elusive threat to the free society than the earlier leftist movements. Communism and the USSR represented a clear and obvious danger. So did the New Left with its repressive violence. Political Correctness however insinuates itself and permeates society piously, incrementally, without always attracting attention.

The established think-tanks are not always alert to the danger. They recognize clearly enough the damage that Affirmative Action may do to the free market and the creation of wealth. But they are less sensitive to the extension of dogmatic Political Correctness into the wider culture, the professions, the arts, the media, the churches.

There are many courses of action open to us - from opposition in the Parliament, criticism in the media, humour and satire on stage and screen, to civilty and common sense in daily life. But I want to stress another approach.

Across the world there is a range of magazines which by their nature are centres of intellectual life and which are constantly assessing Political Correctness, distinguishing its liberal from its illiberal impulses. But they work in isolation, often unaware of each other. They are waiting for some form of international cooperation.

We may draw inspiration from the great poet and editor T. S Eliot and a BBC broadcast he made in 1946 to writers and artists in Germany which had been devastated by the War and culturally isolated from the world for over 10 years. He recalled his time as editor of the London journal Criterion in the 1920’s and 1930’s and his efforts at ‘bringing together the best in new thinking and new writing from all countries that had anything to contribute to the common good.’ From London he made contact with magazine editors in Paris and Rome, Zurich and Frankfurt and Madrid.

‘The existence,’ he said, ‘of such a network of independent reviews, a least one in every capital, is necessary for the transmission of ideas - and to make possible the circulation of ideas while they are still fresh. The editors of such reviews, and if possible the more regular contributors, should be able to get to know each other personally, to visit each other, to entertain each other, and to exchange ideas in conversation. In any one such periodical, of course, there must be much that will be of interest only to readers of its own nation and language. But their cooperation should continually stimulate that circulation of influence, of thought and sensibility, between nation and nation, which fertilises and renovates from abroad the literature of each one of them.

‘And through such cooperation, and the friendship between men of letters which ensue from it, should emerge into public view those works of literature which are not only of local but of European [that is, international] significance.

This seems to me a manifesto for our time. It is a call for magazines around the world, their editors and contributors and readers, to cooperate, converse and exchange ideas. I mean such magazines and their circles as Frontiers of Freedom in Johannesburg, or Quadrant in Sydney, or The National Interest in Washington DC or The New Criterion in New York, or Freedom First in Bombay, or The Salisbury Review and Prospect in London - and scores of others in various languages far too many to list now.

Each in its own circumstances combats Political Correctness but they do so in isolation from each other. Surely they can come together and strengthen each other, along T. S. Eliot’s lines. Is there no foundation willing to pay some of the bills ?

Just as the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its journals were able to demystify and expose the Communist Party and its Fellow Travellers, and the neo-conservative think-tanks and their journals were able to deconstruct the New Left and the counter-culture, so - I put to you - the existing but unrelated journals of liberal disposition, and their circles, should form the basis of a networks, cooperative but informal as T. S Eliot advocated, to combat Political Correctness and keep alive the freedom of freedom, authenticity and imagination.


This article appeared in three magazines in England, South Africa and Australia. Mr. Peter Coleman sent it to us as he has referred to Freedom First in his article. Peter Coleman is an eminent Australian Liberal and was Governor General of Australia.