You Had To Be There

You Had To Be There

Mini Teaser: A legacy besmirched: an ill-informed portrait of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

by Author(s): Walter Laqueur

Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 1999).

The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) was founded at a big public meeting of intellectuals in Berlin, in the summer of 1950. Appropriately, the event coincided exactly with the outbreak of the Korean War--appropriately, because its establishment was the American response to an earlier Soviet initiative--in Wroclaw, Poland--to mobilize European writers, artists and intellectuals in its Cold War effort. (It was at Wroclaw on that occasion that the Stalinist apparatchik, Alexander Fadeyev, displaying his credentials as a literary critic, observed that if hyenas and jackals could write they would do so in the style of T.S. Eliot and Jean-Paul Sartre.) Given the political circumstances of the time, the sense of an urgent need for such a response was widespread: most of Eastern Europe had just been folded into the Soviet empire, the communists had triumphed in China, there were huge communist parties in France and Italy, and a large segment of Western intellectual opinion--perhaps the preponderant part--either favored the Soviet position or was neutral between it and the American one.

The Congress for Cultural Freedom was to exist for seventeen years, and some of the journals it sponsored continued to appear well after that. With its headquarters in Paris and its dozen or so periodicals, its frequent conferences and seminars, the Congress was supported by the CIA as part of that organization's covert activities, money being channeled through several existing foundations. This was kept a secret at the time, and it is doubtful whether anyone but Michael Josselson, the secretary-general of the CCF and a covert CIA operative, and possibly one or two others within the organization, knew about it. Not that it would have been considered a matter of paramount concern by the key figures in the organization had they known, because at the time the sense of freedom under attack was so strong that help would have been accepted from just about any quarter. It was an unfortunate arrangement, bound to backfire sooner or later, but there was no alternative at hand. There was no American agency dealing with cultural activities abroad on the lines of the British Council or the Alliance Franaise, and there was not a ghost of a chance that the U.S. Congress would have passed legislation for a project over which, by necessity, it would not have had control.

These facts, in broad outline, have been known since the mid-1960s. Why, then, should the CCF still attract the attention of writers in various countries to this very day? The brief answer is that at the height of its influence, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the CCF was a huge success. Its outreach was considerable and it played a notable role in the "war of ideas", which to a large extent was what the Cold War amounted to. While the financial cost involved was small by any standard, the journals the Congress published were among the best of their time, and the conferences and seminars it organized were influential. Together, they contributed, among other things, to changing the Labour Party in Britain and the Social Democratic Party in Germany from organizations with a narrow class base to truly popular parties, capable of holding their own (and governing) in the modern world. By now, it should also be clear that the political orientation of the CCF, not only with regard to the Soviet Union and the future of communism but generally, was a sound one--while the fashionable neutralist ideologies of the time were just as clearly wrong. Thus, books and articles about the CCF continue to be published, some admiring, others evidently unwilling to forgive it for having been prematurely right.

Frances Stonor Saunders, an Oxford-educated television producer, belongs to the latter camp. She has invested much effort in studying the archival evidence and interviewing some of the surviving CIA officials involved. She depends heavily on information supplied by Josselson's widow and Natasha Spender, the wife of the late Stephen Spender, poet and joint editor of Encounter. She presents interesting stories in the best (and worst) tradition of investigative journalism--uncovering, for instance, vital evidence that George Orwell's widow, Sonia, agreed to give Hollywood the film rights for Animal Farm only after she had been promised an assignation with Clark Gable. If true, it is a good story, even if it has nothing to do with the Congress for Cultural Freedom. But once we pass from the realm of entertainment to matters of substance, Saunders proves to be less than a reliable guide.

Consider, to begin with, the choice of the title: Who Paid the Piper? It is unlikely that she, or anyone else holding views similar to hers, would have given such a title to a history of the Russian Revolution, despite the fact that Lenin received a great deal of German money and was only able to take command of the event after being transported from Zurich to St. Petersburg courtesy of the German army. But she has no hesitation imputing complete political dependence on its source of funds in the case of the Congress, even though it is clear from the body of her book that poor Michael Josselson in Paris and the CIA in Langley, Virginia, found it impossible to control the intellectuals of the CCF in a dozen capitals. In fact they did not seriously try to do so. Instructions were seldom issued, and on the few occasions when an attempt was made in that direction, it was almost always ignored. This state of semi-anarchy may have quite literally shortened Josselson's life.

Saunders believes that the Cold War was not real but a "fabricated reality"--fabricated mainly by George Kennan, who apparently wanted to impose a Pax Americana on the rest of the world! She has only a vague idea as to the identity and the views of other dramatis personae. Thus Franz Borkenau, one of the fiercest anti-communists of his day, becomes the official historian of the Communist International. Richard Crossman, the British Labour member of parliament and later minister, is introduced as secretary-general of the Labour Party, a position that never existed and one that Crossman, for most of his career a maverick intellectual rather than an organization man, would have been the last person elected to fill had it existed. Raymond Aron, a key figure in Congress affairs especially in the later years, is hardly ever mentioned, and the author clearly prefers his antagonist, Jean-Paul Sartre, even though politically Sartre was consistently wrong while Aron was almost always right. It was said at the time in Paris that it was better to be wrong with Sartre than to be right with Aron; in the light of subsequent events, few people still cling to that position, but Saunders is evidently one of them.

Readers of her book might reasonably expect to be told about the nature of Congress activities, the character of its magazines, the agenda of its seminars and conferences: Who wrote for and participated in them? What was their intellectual level? Were they interesting or boring? Did they matter and have an impact? But these deeper and basic issues are not raised, for Saunders' interest in ideas and policies seems to be strictly limited: she is after sensation and scandal, how the petty cash was spent and how individuals quarreled. She seems to have read with great attention the financial accounts of the CCF, but it is not clear on the evidence provided whether she read any of its publications. True, she refers to two articles submitted to Encounter (one of which was never published), but there is no reference to the contents, even briefly, of the other magazines. One is left uneasy, too, by her few references to important books, and a description of Koestler's Darkness at Noon as being about "Soviet cruelty" simply raises doubts as to whether she has ever read it.

In short, the diligent work she undertook in the archives and in her interviews is more than offset by political bias and primitive moralizing, unencumbered by knowledge of and interest in the historico-political context of the organization. It is as if the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization that more than most was the product of a particular time and milieu, had existed in a political vacuum. In some ways such a bitter attack many years after the event may be seen as a compliment to the achievements of the Congress, for ineffectual dead horses are seldom flogged.

It should be mentioned that shortly before the present book appeared in Britain, an academic study on the same subject by Michael Hochgeschwender was published in Germany. It is about twice as long as Saunders' book, has ten times as many footnotes, and is a hundred times more reliable. It deals in ideas, not scandal, and Clark Gable does not make an appearance. Alas, chances are that it will never be translated.

Why is it that in Germany, France and Italy there is a more objective and relaxed attitude toward the Congress than there is either in the United States or in Britain? It was not always thus, certainly not in France, where American "cultural imperialism" was bitterly denounced at the time--and by Gaullists as much as by communists. But in France, the gospel according to Jean-Paul Sartre was buried even while the man himself was still alive, and Raymond Aron belatedly received the kudos due to him; Preuves, the French organ of the Congress, was not much of a success in terms of circulation while it was being published, but ironically its issues have been reprinted long after it ceased to appear.

Could it be, perhaps, that the special animus against the Congress and Encounter that permeates the Saunders book has in the end less to do with politics and ideology than with wounded national pride? Encounter, published in London, certainly was the most interesting political-literary journal of its day, but its influence was always greater outside Britain than inside. During its lifetime, its two principal editors were first Irving Kristol and then Melvin Lasky, two New Yorkers. In England there was resentment--in influential circles of the Right as much as of the far Left, and not least in the academic world--that foreigners (and especially New Yorkers of a certain ethnic provenance) should arrogate to themselves the right to publish a magazine that was more interesting than the existing ones (and, one should add, the ones that came after).

At a time when historians are still unable to see eye to eye on the French Revolution, it may be unrealistic to expect unanimity on events that happened only a few decades ago. If Saunders believes that, even in retrospect, Sartre and the neutralists of the 1950s were right and that one should have been less beastly to Stalin and his successors, she is of course entitled to her opinion. But the activities of the Congress for Cultural Freedom still deserve to be taken more seriously than they are in this book, with an emphasis on ideas rather than scandal and petty cash. Perhaps a Russian or East European historian should be asked to write such a history; he or she would be likely to show greater political understanding, detachment and sense of what was at stake during the early years of the Cold War.

Essay Types: Book Review