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January 1990

What was the Congress for Cultural Freedom?

by Hilton Kramer

I can think of no group of people who have done more to hold our world together in these last years than you and your associates in the Congress [for Cultural Freedom]. In this country [the United States] in particular, few will ever understand the dimensions and significance of your accomplishment.


—George F. Kennan to Nicolas Nabokov, 1959

Of the many important chapters in the history of the Cold War that are nowadays either forgotten, misremembered, or summarily consigned to a demonology that places them beyond the reach of rational inquiry, none has been entombed under a heavier burden of obloquy and distortion than the story of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which emerged in 1950 as the West’s most steadfast and effective focus of intellectual resistance to Stalin and Stalinism and went on to play a significant role in exposing the true nature of Communism and the fraudulent culture that had been created in its name. The reason for the dismal fate suffered by this once admired organization—the ostensible reason, anyway—is anything but obscure. For much of its seventeen-year existence, the Congress for Cultural Freedom—and thus its principal publications and programs—was covertly financed by the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington. Exactly how many of the Congress’s leaders were actually deceived about the CIA’s subvention of their organization’s activities is something we shall probably never know. (Michael Josselson, the executive director and presiding spirit of the Congress, was the only one to acknowledge responsibility in the matter.) How many would have been bothered by the CIA connection, had they known, is another question to which we have no answer. They were, after all, voluntarily serving the interests of the Western democracies in their fierce conflict with the deadliest and most powerful international tyranny known to modern history. The crucial point is, however, that the CIA role was concealed, and when that fact came to light in the dark days of the Vietnam War, the ensuing scandal had the effect of shattering whatever prestige the Congress still retained. More importantly, it also had the retrospective effect of discrediting some of the Congress’s most exemplary accomplishments.

The political climate in 1967 was, of course, especially favorable to such a scandal. The New Left, with its vociferous revival of totalitarian ideas, was in its ascendancy, making swift inroads even among liberals for whom—until then, anyway—anti-Communism had been an article of faith. Owing to the war in Vietnam and the antiwar movement it spawned, moreover, everything about the United States—its political system, its culture, its prosperity, and its position as a world power—had become for many people, especially many young people from the middle classes, an object of hatred and derision. When the scandal erupted over the CIA’s sponsorship of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, it was thus promptly turned into a double-edged weapon aimed at maligning American democracy and destroying the moral legitimacy of anti-Communism. The glorification of totalitarian systems had once again become not only acceptable but fashionable. The media, the academy, and the cultural world were quick to adopt the new line. Suddenly, as if a switch had been thrown, Hanoi and Havana emerged as the New Jerusalems, and “Amerika,” as it came to be called in radical circles, was now likened to Nazi Germany. Hence the passion and the vitriol that were invested in decrying an organization that had led the way in stripping Communism of its every claim to virtue. Writers and intellectuals who now thought it wonderful that their counterparts in North Vietnam and Cuba were employed as the licensed servitors of regimes that had stamped out dissent by violent means purported to be horrified that an agency of their own democratic government had taken an interest in launching highbrow journals and international conferences designed to uphold the values of liberal culture and to expose the horrors of Communism and the mendacity of the organs that promoted its power. The Left had begun its “long march through the institutions” of the West, and Jean-Paul Sartre had defined the new political orthodoxy when he declared that “an anti-Communist is a rat.” Not since the heyday of Stalinism in the Thirties had so many intellectuals in the West voluntarily repudiated the traditions of liberal democracy in favor of a totalitarian ideal.

It was precisely to forestall such an abject surrender to the totalitarian ideal that the Congress for Cultural Freedom had been founded in the first place—founded, it is important to recall, at a moment when the Cold War was transformed, at Stalin’s instigation, into a hot war in Korea and immediately after the fall of the politically divided Berlin to the Communists had been narrowly averted by the Allied airlift, an effort that foiled the Kremlin’s ruthless attempt to starve West Berlin into submission. The Congress was founded, in other words, at a moment when the struggle to resist worldwide Soviet expansionism— which was understood to mean the spread of Communist rule by means of terror and the Gulag—was in its formative stages and a victorious outcome for the West, which we are only just now beginning to witness some four decades later, was anything but assured.

One of the great weaknesses that afflicted the West in this fateful struggle was the long-standing tendency of its artists, intellectuals, and other opinion-makers to ally themselves with any regime, no matter how brutal and undemocratic, that claimed to rule in the name of socialism. Capitalism was generally, if not quite universally, abominated in this intellectual class, and one or another variety of Marxian socialism— ranging from the ostensibly “democratic” to the rigidly communistic—had acquired over the years the status of a sacred doctrine. It hardly seemed to matter that the rule of Soviet-style socialism had turned the societies upon which it was inflicted into despotisms of the most extreme and unrelieved cruelty and deprivation. Reality counted for little or nothing where belief in the ultimate goodness of the socialist ideal persisted; and that belief—hard as it may now be to understand or forgive—was a widespread phenomenon among Western intellectuals. As a result, Stalin and his criminal cohorts could still, despite the enormity of their crimes and the high visibility of their police-state methods, count upon the sympathy and support of “progressives” the world over in the drive for world domination. In France and Italy there were huge Communist parties, well-financed by Moscow, already in control of labor and the arts; and even in the United States, where significant defections from the Stalinist ranks had occurred in the aftermath of the Moscow Trials and the Hitler-Stalin pact, there was never any shortage of ardent fellow-travellers, not to say militant Stalinists, among the intellectual, scientific,and entertainment elites. At the notorious Waldorf Conference in New York in 1949— one year before the Congress for Cultural Freedom was founded—eminences on the order of Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, I. F. Stone, Howard Fast, and F. O. Matthiessen joined forces with Stalin’s emissaries to defend the Soviet Union as the champion of “peace” while denouncing the United States as the promoter of war. At that conference the young Norman Mailer was thought to be tremendously audacious for announcing, after he had assured his listeners that he, too, believed that “so long as there is capitalism, there is going to be war. Until you have a decent, equitable socialism, you can’t have peace,” that “I am afraid that both the United States and the Soviet Union are moving toward state capitalism.” Among true-believing “progressives,” however, even this premature exercise in moral equivalence was considered an impermissible slur on Stalin’s noble accomplishments.

Nearly twenty years later, Norman Mailer, summoning that gift for moral delicacy that is so much admired in the work of his maturity, described the intellectuals involved in the Congress for Cultural Freedom as “cockroaches in a slum sink.” There was a lot of this sort of thing in the left-wing press in the aftermath of the revelations about CIA support for the Congress. Christopher Lasch spoke of these same intellectuals as “servants ... of the secret police.” Andrew Kopkind denounced them as “spies who came in for the gold.” It is therefore worth recalling exactly who these “cockroaches,” “spies,” and “servants... of the secret police” actually were, and what sort of work they carried out on behalf of the Congress and its programs. After all, such figures as Raymond Aron, Nicola Chiaromonte, Malcolm Muggeridge, Nicolas Nabokov, Denis de Rougemont, Edward Shils, Ignazio Silone, and Stephen Spender—all of whom were deeply involved in the Congress’s activities—aren’t usually spoken of as “cockroaches” and “spies” and Encounter, Preuves, and Tempo Presente—the three principal magazines that were launched by the Congress in Europe—do not represent the sort of intelligence that is commonly associated with the work of “the secret police” in any country.

The task of setting the record straight on these and other matters has now been greatly advanced by an Australian writer—Peter Coleman, the editor of Quadrant—who has written the first history of the Congress.[1] The Liberal Conspiracy, as Mr. Coleman’s book is called, is unlikely to be the last word on the Congress for Cultural Freedom—it has remarkably little to say, for example, about the kind of culture the Congress was created to defend and advance—but it nonetheless provides us with a readable and fairly detailed chronicle of the organization’s history, its publications, its programs, its principal personnel, and the remarkably deep divisions and dissensions that determined the course of its history from the outset. Mr. Coleman, a barrister and former member of the Australian Parliament, does not pretend to write as an entirely disinterested observer. Quadrant, the cultural review he now edits in Sydney, was one of the many magazines launched by the Congress in the 1950s—though, like Encounter in London, it has long since been published as a completely independent journal. (Mr. Coleman was not, by the way, Quadrant’s editor when the magazine was supported by the Congress.) His political views, moreover, are essentially those that guided the Congress in its heyday—which is to say, he is a liberal anti-Communist, or so I infer, anyway, from what he has written. He writes, in other words, as a champion of the Congress and its program who is also fully aware of the flaws and contradictions that haunted its history. His overall judgment on the Congress, implicit throughout The Liberal Conspiracy, is stated in the most unequivocal terms in the concluding paragraph of the book.

The achievement of the Congress for Cultural Freedom [he writes] was in its time to have placed some severe limits on the advantages of Stalinist Russia. Today almost everyone (including Mikhail Gorbachev) agrees with the Congress’s once lonely assessment of Soviet totalitarianism, and in particular of the Soviet failure to accept human rights (in other words, cultural freedom). In contributing in so brilliant and timely a way to this public awareness throughout the world in a period of great danger, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was a historic success.

Of the many important points to emerge from Mr. Coleman’s history of the Congress, probably the most crucial is his insistent reminder throughout the book of the extent to which the organization and its program—indeed, its basic political orientation—was firmly and irreversibly tethered to the views of the international Left. Mailer’s “cockroaches” turn out to have been, by and large, a band of liberals, socialists, and social democrats who were distinguishable from their brethren on the international Left mainly by their opposition to totalitarian rule. And in the end, so complete was this bias in favor of the political Left that even this distinction was abandoned by the Congress’s chief executive when confronted by the war in Vietnam. It is positively eerie to discover in The Liberal Conspiracy that in 1967, when the United States was deeply involved in the war against Communism in Vietnam and the Congress’s link to the CIA had been revealed in the press, Michael Josselson, still ringmaster of the whole operation, “approved [as Mr. Coleman writes] the antiwar positions of [John Kenneth] Galbraith, [Arthur] Schlesinger, and Richard Löwenthal, and disagreed with the Indian and Australian associates of the Congress who supported the U. S. commitment to save South Vietnam from Communism.” In May 1967, according to Mr. Coleman, Josselson wrote in no uncertain terms to the head of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, which received its funds from the Congress, that on the war in Vietnam “I agree with Senator McGovern.” Which, among much else, would have made the executive director of the Congress for Cultural Freedom an ally, albeit an unacknowledged one, of Norman Mailer, Christopher Lasch, and Andrew Kopkind.

This attachment to certain elements of the international Left had, of course, been fundamental to the Congress’s political outlook from the beginning, and although it was bound to cause immense problems— and very quickly did—no other course was probably possible at the time. For it was only on the Left—which is to say, in the ranks of what came to be known as liberal anti-Communism—that eager and knowledgeable recruits for the intellectual struggle against Stalinism were to be found. Except for James Burnham, political conservatives played little or no part in this endeavor. (That some of these liberals and leftists re-emerged, in the late Sixties, as conservatives or neoconservatives is a story that belongs to a later chapter of intellectual history.) At the time, the only opposition to Stalinism that counted for anything was a liberal opposition, which by the late 1940s was beginning to emerge as a coherent intellectual impulse. About this development and its role both in influencing the State Department in Washington and the formation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Mr. Coleman is very illuminating.

… in the late 1940s [he writes] opinion on the Left gradually began to change, spurred on by the Sovietization and the purges of social democrats in Eastern and Central Europe, the Berlin Blockade, and the campaign against Tito. The year 1949 brought the publication of three books that indicated the new mood on the Left: The God That Failed (edited by R H. S. Crossman), George Orwell’s 1984, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Vital Center. Schlesinger’s book, a manifesto of the American “Non-Communist Left,” also showed how quickly this movement had spread from the intellectual ghetto to high government office under the influence of such figures as George Kennan, Charles E. Bohlen, and Isaiah Berlin. “Under Byrnes and Marshall,” Schlesinger said, recounting a “quiet revolution,”

… the State Department moved in the direction of a philosophy of the non-Communist left. The very phrase, indeed, was reduced in the Washington manner to its initials; and the cryptic designation “NCL” was constantly used in inner State Department circles.

It was the widespread adoption in the more intellectual U.S. government circles of the belief that the non-Communist Left could be the most effective response to the totalitarian Left that created a receptive atmosphere for the formation and support of what would become the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Thus, when the first public meeting of the Congress for Cultural Freedom was convened in Berlin in June 1950, Mr. Coleman writes, “almost all the participants were liberals or social democrats, critical of capitalism and opposed to colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, racism, and dictatorship. They supported freedom of thought and the extension of the welfare state.” The Congress’s five Honorary Presidents— “whose names exemplified the spirit of the occasion,” as Mr. Coleman correctly observes—were Benedetto Croce, John Dewey, Karl Jaspers, Jacques Maritain, and Bertrand Russell.

Was it inevitable that a serious split would develop at the very moment when the Congress was being formed? Probably. The intellectuals who gathered in Berlin were very largely veterans of the kind of political factionalism that had long been endemic on the Left, and there were genuine differences, in any case, about the goals to be pursued now that the Cold War had erupted into a military conflict in Korea. Arthur Koestler, whose novel about the Moscow purge trials, Darkness at Noon, had undoubtedly exerted a greater influence than any other book in winning converts to the anti-Communist cause on the Left, at least until the publication of 1984, and whose political eloquence had dominated the Berlin meeting, believed that the Congress, in Mr. Coleman’s words, “should be less a cultural organization and more a political movement, a ‘Deminform’ to counter the Cominform.”

But Koestler’s brand of militancy did not prevail, and Koestler himself promptly removed himself from the Congress’s affairs. “The alternative strategy adopted by the Congress for Cultural Freedom,” Mr. Coleman writes, “was to build a kind of ‘united front’ with the democratic elements of the European Left and gradually win it over to the Atlanticist cause.” This meant, in practice, an attempt to win favor in so-called “neutralist” circles, which were not in any political sense neutral at all, and thus to blur, insofar as it was possible, the very deep differences that divided the founders of the Congress from, say, Sartre and his fellow-travelling allies. No doubt Mr. Coleman is correct when he observes that “it is impossible to separate this coup—at once ideological and pragmatic—from the decision of the U. S. Central Intelligence Agency to assume responsibility for the continuing funding of the Congress.” In other words, the ban imposed on Koestler’s plan for a militant anti-Communist political movement was very likely the result of a CIA directive.

This overt dependence on the political Left as the intellectual mainstay of the Congress may indeed have been necessary, given the realities of the moment, but it was only a matter of time before it became the source of considerable dissension—and the time was not long in coming. As early as 1955, only two years after the founding of Encounter in London, Josselson attempted to remove its American co-editor, Irving Kristol, and replace him with the more radical Dwight Macdonald in an effort to appease the anti-American sentiments of the English literary and academic establishment. This was a move enthusiastically supported by Mr. Schlesinger (“I could not think of a better American prospect for the job”) and Mr. Kristol’s English co-editor, Stephen Spender (“the most amazing piece of good luck and should be seized”), and if what was wanted was an American who could be counted upon to outdo even the English in voicing anti-American sentiments, Macdonald was certainly the right man for the job. But even Josselson changed his mind once he had met Macdonald, and under Mr. Kristol’s editorship Encounter soon became, as he said, “the English-language cultural periodical,” with a circulation of sixteen thousand. When the time came for Irving Kristol to leave, he was replaced by Melvin J. Lasky, who had been one of the principal organizers of the Berlin meeting in 1950. “By 1963,” Mr. Coleman writes, “Encounter’s circulation had risen to 34,000, and it was a success.” In his Mémoires, published in 1983, Raymond Aron described it as “the first, the best monthly review in English.” Mr. Coleman also reminds us that, under Mr. Lasky’s editorship, Encounter allied itself with the Hugh Gaitskell wing of the Labour Party, and when Harold Wilson formed his Labour Government in October 1964, “his Ministry included half a dozen regular Encounter writers.” Thus, the attachment to the Left, though not to the most radical Left, persisted well into the Sixties.

As for the Congress’s role in advancing the culture which it had been founded to defend, that too proved to be a source of conflict within the organization’s ranks. Part of the problem, which it would be a mistake to underestimate, was the sheer philistinism of so many of the intellectuals who had allied themselves with the Congress. Mr. Coleman points out, for example, that at Encounter Mr. Lasky “rejected an article by Malcolm Muggeridge that briskly dismissed all twentieth-century literature, music, and art; none of it, Muggeridge said, ‘will be of any conceivable imaginative interest to posterity.’ But this meant dismissing the Western culture that . . . the Congress for Cultural Freedom had been created to affirm.” Muggeridge’s was hardly an isolated case— though, with his customary candor, he was more open in his expression of contempt for the high culture of his time than many of his like-minded colleagues in the Congress could bring themselves to be.

This tendency to dismiss the arts as either unimportant or, as in Muggeridge’s case, utterly worthless was emphatically resisted, however, by the man who served as secretary-general of the Congress at its Paris headquarters. Nicolas Nabokov, the Russian-born composer and cousin of the novelist, had achieved fame, as Mr. Coleman reminds us, “in Paris in 1928 when Serge Diaghilev produced his ballet Ode. He continued his musical career in the United States, where the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo presented his ballet Union Pacific, its first ballet with an American theme.” He had become an American citizen in 1939, and worked as a translator for the government in Washington during the war. After the war, he worked for the U.S. Military Government in Berlin, where he had grown up after fleeing the Bolsheviks with his family, and also worked for the Voice of America before joining the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

It was Nabokov’s view that the Congress ought to live up to its obligation to foster the artistic life of the West as a vital alternative to the Soviet cultural model, and toward this end he organized a massive arts festival—the Festival of Paris— in May 1952 that lasted for thirty days. According to Mr. Coleman:

Nabokov presented Paris with one hundred symphonies, concertos, operas, and ballets by about seventy twentieth-century composers. Paris had its first productions of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (by the Vienna Opera), of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd (by Covent Garden), of Gertrude Stein’s and Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts (by Harlem and ANT A, with Alice B. Toklas attending), and of Arnold Schoenberg’s Die Erwartung. Igor Stravinsky-conducted Oedipus Rex, for which Jean Cocteau designed the set and directed the choreography. There were performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Ballet. William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Allen Tate came from the United States for literary debates. There was an exhibition of 150 modern paintings and sculptures. As well as celebrating the cultural freedom of the West, the Festival also made its anti-Soviet point indirectly by performing works by Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich that were banned in the Soviet Union, and directly by arranging church services for the victims of totalitarian oppression.

You would think, if you didn’t know better, that this extraordinary festival of the arts would be acclaimed in retrospect as one of the proudest accomplishments in the history of the Congress. But such it did not turn out to be in the eyes of those political stalwarts of the Congress for whom “culture” counted for very little. Arthur Koestler dismissed the Festival of Paris as “an effete gathering,” and Sidney Hook went on denouncing Nabokov for wasting the Congress’s money right into the 1980s. Unfortunately, Mr. Coleman is not really equipped to deal with this aspect of the Congress’s history—he seems, for example, to be under the mistaken impression that Pierre Monteux and Charles Munch were composers—and he accords it very little attention. Even about the cultural aspect of the Congress’s many magazines, he has remarkably little to say. The cultural history of the Congress for Cultural Freedom remains to be written; what we are mainly given in The Liberal Conspiracy is its political history.

Is Mr. Coleman right, then, in his judgment that the Congress was “a historic success”? On the whole, I think he is, especially in regard to its activities in the 1950s—the period when it made the greatest difference. By the time the Congress was dissolved in the wake of revelations about the CIA connection, its attachment to the Left was no longer politically viable. The anti-Communist Left was itself beginning to fall apart—which is to say, more and more divided in its response to Communism. Toward the end of The Liberal Conspiracy, Mr. Coleman turns to Edward Shils for an account of this political denouement—an account that makes even better sense in the light of events in Eastern and Central Europe today than it did when Mr. Shils first made his analysis some years ago.

Edward Shils summed up the position . .. when he wrote that although the Cold War continued unceasingly, the “moral strain” of it proved too much for Western opinion, including, if not especially, that of the non-Communist Left, which increasingly grasped at the idea of “competitive coexistence” and emphasized the relaxing coexistence rather than the competitiveness. He found the source of the “moral strain” in “the burden of 1917 the liberal conviction that the Soviet Union, whatever its terrible imperfections, remains an “advanced” and “progressive” society, since it has abolished private property, capitalism, and the market. To eliminate that “burden,” it is necessary to acknowledge that a free society is bound up with private property, capitalism, and the market, that there is “an inescapable affinity between socialists and communists.”

It wasn’t only the Congress for Cultural Freedom that came to an end in the Sixties. What also ended, by and large, was the old non-Communist Left to which the Congress had, for better or worse, tethered its fate.

 

  1. The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe, by Peter Coleman; The Free Press, 333 pages, $22.95. Go back to the text.

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) was the founding editor of The New Criterion, which he started with the late Samuel Lipman in 1982.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 January 1990, on page 7

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

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