Peter Coleman on holding the thin anti-red line

Peter Coleman described the rise and fall of the Congress for Cultural Freedom which started at one of the darkest moments of the Cold War. In the Preface to The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe  he wrote

In June 1950 over a hundred European and American writers and intellectuals met in Berlin and established the Congress for Cultural Freedom to resist the Kremlin’s sustained assault on liberal democratic values. In the 1950s the Congress spread throughout the world, successfully creating magazines, organizing protests, establishing a network of affiliated national committees and fostering international contacts. The Congress continued into the 1960s, broadening its focus to lay the basis of an international community of liberal and democratic intellectuals. It was America’s principal attempt to win over the world’s intellectuals to the liberal democratic cause.

This is the Preface and Table of Contents.

The Great War of 1914-18 was a great evil but it spawned another that turned out to be far worse. This was the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Red takeover in the aftermath of the revolution. For the remainder of the century the Soviet empire spread devastation across the globe, not only in it’s own domain but in every other country where its agents and its ideology polluted both politics and the world of ideas.

Peter Coleman has provided an invaluable account of the counter-attack by liberal intellectuals in the battle of ideas with communism. At the time that this story begins, Arthur Koestler was convinced that the future of civilisation would be decided by the outcome of the battle between communists and ex-communists like himself. He believed that others could not comprehend the true nature of their adversary, with its capacity to recruit both the best of people and the worst of people. He was mistaken. The thin anti-red line was held by a mix of ex-communists and others who had not drunk from that poisoned cup.

In 1989 the New York Times ran a retrospective review of the book which underlines the major internal tensions.

As Mr. Coleman makes clear, the congress always ”felt itself to be of the Left and on the Left.” Its political sympathies were ”with the Democratic Party in the United States, the Socialists in France, and the Labour Party in the United Kingdom.” Its members overwhelmingly supported the democratic welfare state, while embracing ”anticapitalism,” in the words of the French philosopher Raymond Aron, as ”an article of faith.” What divided the congress, throughout its existence, were nagging questions about direction and goals: Was the organization capable of moving beyond its anti-Stalinist roots? Did its rejection of political neutralism assume an uncritical stance toward American politics and culture? Was it possible to oppose totalitarianism, and to celebrate freedom, in a rational, civilized way?

The answers to these questions remained elusive, to say the least. On the literary front, the editors of Encounter found it maddening to deal with irreconcilable positions. When the journal emphasized poetry, fiction or art in its pages, it was criticized for ignoring the Hungarian Revolution or the plight of prisoners in the Soviet world. But when tough anti-Communist pieces appeared, such as Leslie Fiedler’s brilliant dissection of the Rosenberg case in 1953, the magazine was faulted by publications like The Times Literary Supplement for its ”negative liberalism,” based on a ”hatred and fear of Communism.” (Who in the 1930’s, wondered Encounter’s co-editor, Irving Kristol, would have dared to describe someone as ”negative” because of his ”hatred and fear” of fascism?) Even more troubling was the bitter internal feud over the ”American question” – a feud that led, in large part, to the dissolution of the congress’s largest national affiliate, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, in 1957. Chaired by Sidney Hook, the cantankerous American Committee could rarely agree on anything beyond a common hatred of Stalin. Its 600 members ranged from the journalist Dwight Macdonald and the novelist Mary McCarthy on the left to the political writers Max Eastman and James Burnham on the right. They argued endlessly over the threat posed by domestic Communists, the meaning of McCarthyism and the need to condemn the Wisconsin Senator by name. But the key issue, to most of them, was the sustained assault by their European colleagues – especially the British – on American justice, values and beliefs.

The Liberal Conspiracy is the story of the the loose-knit world-wide confederation of groups and people who attempted to match the influence of the communists and their fellow travellers in the cultural and educational arenas. It is a proud and heroic tale, although it was mostly just slogging, old-fashioned hard work. Few of the protagonists would claim the mantle of heroism but they deserve high praise for their courage and their fortitude.

In its prime the Congress had offices in 35 countries with almost 300 staff  supporting a network of cultural magazines, including Preuves in France, Encounter in Britain and Quadrant in Australia. It sponsored  international seminars on topics including ”Science and Freedom” and ”The End of Ideology.”  Soviet repression dominatd the agenda but it spoke out against other human rights abuses as well, including apartheid in South Africa, political jailings by the right-wing dictatorships of Argentina, Portugal and Spain; and the denial of passports to political dissidents in the United States.

Coleman described how the organisation finally ran down in the  era of the Vietnam War, a New Left, a new Conservatism and an emerging detente. It was finally dissolved in 1967 amidst disclosures of its funding by the CIA. The opponents of the Congress attempted to claim a moral victory on that basis but the information emerging from the Eastern European archives should ensure that eventually the full story of the treason of the communist fellow travellers will be told. This book is a mirror image of that dismal tale, the story of men and women who beat against the intellectual tide in defence of freedom and dignity.

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14 years ago

Telling the world, post WWII, that communism was bad was as useful as telling the world that the sky was blue.

Excesses of this uselessness gave us McCarthyism, the Vietnam invasion, etc etc.

Coleman could better have pursued useful endeavours.

Chris Lloyd
14 years ago

Coleman’s article was written in 1989. Very topical post Rafe. The CCF were originally left wing but anti-Stalinist. Good on them but a pity they could not fund their own activities without the CIA. If you are worried about how the communists “polluted both politics and the world of ideas” you have a very different idea of intellectual life than me. The world of ideas cannot be “polluted.” There is no clean, natural state to be sullied. Bad metaphor.

“It is a proud and heroic tale.” Anti-communists in general were not so heroic, unless they were doing it in Russia. They may have been right in being opposed to communism, but they were not heroic. How herioc did you need to be to denounce your rivals to the house of un-american activities? How heroic was it to try and ban the communist party in Australia rather than just pointing out the failure and thuggishness of the Soviet experiment?

How heroic were the ASIO agents who bugged my parent’s phone because my 17 year old brother was a suspected communist? Oh, yeah. These heroes had to “match the influence of the communists and their fellow travellers in the cultural and educational arenas.” Even though communists has about 1% of the primary vote here. OK. The CCF may not have been that bad themselves. But they were the sanitised front end of an ugly lynch mob.

It took no courage at all to be an anti-communist in the 50s and 60s. Communists were almost universally reviled, considered a step below satan worshippers. Heroic were those who argued for freedom to be a communist, against the baying media and church, without CIA funding. They won. Quadrant lost. And the world didn’t end.

14 years ago

“The Great War of 1914-18 was a great evil but it spawned another that turned out to be far worse.”
That is nonsense. Utter nonsense. Not only was the cost of the 1914-1918 war beyond devastating, it “spawned” the 1939 – 1945 war. The political repression of the USSR, bad as it may have been, was just that and doesn’t in anyway equate. To say it does is simply bizarre.
You should learn some history – start with the European revolutions in 1848 is my tip.

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

Rafe, I well remember the Quadrant crowd in the early 1970s. Maybe they started off as lefties, but so did all those neocon Straussians. By my day they were an ugly bunch who acted as attack dogs for tory governments. Advocacy of jailing “treasonous” and “disloyal” antiwar protesters was a stock in trade; not very anti-totalitarian at all. In fact I used to think they looked very like the sort of past-it authoritarian commos we still used to occasionally see (and despise) in those days.

And Chris is right – they would not have stayed afloat witout CIA money.

14 years ago

So far as I know the people like Peter Coleman who I admire did not advocate heavy handed tactics.

Vietnam wasn’t heavy-handed? What would heavy-handed have been? Nukes?