Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Ludwig Mises, the Australian connection

Ludwig Mises (1881-1973) is likely to be revealed as one of the sleeping giants of the 20th century. Unlike his Austrian colleague Karl Popper he never touched down on the sacred shores of Australia or any of the outlying islands in the vicinity, not even Tasmania, but there is a strange and fortuitous involvement of an Australian in the translation of his book On Socialism.

The Australian connection is Brian Penton, whose life gives some credence to the old saw that truth is stranger than fiction. Patrick Buckridge wrote a biography of Penton and this is a freestanding piece that gives a fine flavour of the man and his work.

Brian Penton (1904-1951) would surely have achieved the status of the most memorable journalist and commentator in postwar Australia but he died in his prime and left too many enemies to achieve the reputation that he deserved. He was born in Brisbane and left school at the age of fourteen to make an early start in journalism with the Brisbane Courier. At nineteen he travelled to England and worked as a freelance journalist for eighteen months before returning to Australia to join the Sydney Morning Herald.

In 1929 he returned to England, acting as business manager for Jack Lindsay’s Franfolico Press. That episode ended, typically, in prolonged litigation with one of the business partners.
Walking in a London park he met a Hungarian refugee, an economist named Jacques Kahane. They became friends and collaborators in the English translation of a book written in German (1922) on (against) socialism by Ludwig Mises. Kahane was recruited for the task by Professor Lionel Robbins after they became friends while they were students at the London School of Economics.

This brush with the cutting edge of anti-socialist thought served Penton well in later years when he challenged the pillars of the “Australian Settlement” (White Australia, tariffs and central wage fixing) long before they came under widespread attack.

Kahane became a close friend and occasional house guest of Olga and Brian Penton. Each of them dedicated their first books to Kahane, in the case of Brian this was his novel The Landtakers. For Olga it was A Rapid Latin Course with the inscription that she had “hoped that her first book would be a different one”. She was writing a novel while she worked as a Latin teacher to pay the rent.

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