ALAN JOHNSON is a reader in the Center for Studies in the Social Sciences, Edge Hill of Higher Education, England. He is writing a biography of Hal Draper and is a member of the NEW POLITICS editorial board.
I got hold of Sartre and asked him: "What would you say if in certain circumstances you were imprisoned in a city where there was a Communist government, and I, knowing you were innocent, started a campaign against the communists on your account?" "Ah," said Sartre, "that is an extremely difficult question. It all depends. But it is just possible that I in my prison might nevertheless think it better that I should be condemned than that my case should be made the occasion for an accusation against the cause which in the long run is that of the proletariat." I said: "It seems to me that the only good cause has always been that of one person unjustly imprisoned -- whether this has resulted in habeas corpus or a furious campaign conducted by Voltaire in pamphlets." Sartre: "That's the whole drama. That perhaps we live in a situation in which the injustice against one person no longer seems to apply."
(extract from the journal of Stephen Spender, March 30, 1956, in The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People 1933-75)At certain times and in respects to certain crucial issues, instead of saying "neither- nor" and looking for viable alternatives, we must recognize an "either-or" and take one stand or the other.
(Sidney Hook, Out of Step. An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century)
IN THE COLD WAR PROGRESSIVE POLITICS WERE DESTROYED because much of the left entered one or other Faustian pact of the mind. Two "lefts" took the view that "the times" or "the situation" dictated their temporary, knowing, intellectual and practical subordination to state power in Russia or the United States. The result was that both ended up no sort of left at all. Both, like Goethe's Faust, lost their souls. Both discovered that state power, like Mephistopheles, strikes a hard bargain: "The Devil is an egoist/And is not apt, without a why or a wherefore/'For God's sake', others to assist."
The first left stretched well beyond card-carrying Communists. It developed, as William Phillips has put it, a Stalinist Unconscious. Viewing anti-Stalinism as quixotic or, worse, "objectively pro-Imperialist," this left broke the bonds between reason, socialism, liberty, and democracy and put power-worship, "lesser-evilism" and sophistry in their place. Unable to rouse itself to oppose widespread slave labor and political murder in "its camp" it could be moved to paroxysms of anger by the fate of the Rosenbergs or the fact that the Congress of Cultural Freedom received some of its money from the Central Intelligence Agency. Paul Sweezy, editor of Monthly Review, wrote "The restrictions of liberty which are characteristic of Soviet Russia [i.e. torture, mass judicial murder, slave labor camps --AJ] are far less symptomatic of the time than the crisis of liberty in the United States."1 This left -- its ranks swelled by the Maoists of the New Left -- has not gone away. Its mental habits (in particular "campism," i.e. the disastrous idea that "my enemy's enemy is my friend") its sensibility (power-worship, pseudo-realism, arm-chair militarism) and its poverty-stricken idea of what socialism is (Sweezy famously defined socialism as "a system which disallows private property") are largely intact and morphing into new forms. It can be found on the Internet raving that Milosovic is the Castro of the Balkans.
The second postwar "left," stretching well beyond groups like the Congress for Cultural Freedom, was a social-democratic and liberal left that entered a Faustian Pact with the "the West" as a bulwark against Stalinism. Some, like Sidney Hook, began by speaking eloquently of truth and beauty but ended up receiving the Medal of Honor from Ronald Reagan as a reward for dressing up the Contra butchers as freedom fighters.
Who Paid The Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War* by Frances Saunders is the fullest account yet of the CIA's penetration, funding and manipulation of this liberal and social- democratic left during the Cold War. The basic story is well known. The CIA realized that psychological or political warfare was as important as military capability in the Cold War. C.D. Jackson, special advisor to President Eisenhower, played a pivotal role in forcing this understanding on the U.S. political class. Secretary of State Edward Barrett said: "a highly skillful and substantial campaign of truth is as indispensable as an air force." Truman, urged on by George Kennan, had already set up the Psychological Strategy Board on April 4,1952. The PSB operating statement PSB D-33/2 remains classified though it is known to have called for lavishly funded worldwide "political warfare" on Russia. The psychological warfare budget, $34 million in 1950, was quadrupled. Saunders speculates that James Burnham was the author of PSB D-33/2, pointing to its resemblance to Burnham's book The Machiavellians. One might also mention, more plausibly, Burnham's 1947 The Struggle for the World. The CIA aimed to fund an intellectual and cultural war in order to create, in Saunders phrase, "a beachhead in western Europe from which the advance of Communist ideas could be halted."
Once this course had been decided the CIA soon realized that pretty much the only people with both the practical knowledge to conduct such a war against Stalinism, and a popular base in Europe, was the non-Communist Left, tagged the "NCL" by the CIA. According to Michael Warner, a historian working for the CIA's history staff, the NCL was "the theoretical foundation of the Agency's political operations against Communism over the next two decades."
The CIA supported, covertly, the establishment of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) in 1950. The CCF linked ex-communists, ex-Trotskyists, social-democrats and liberal artists, writers and intellectuals. Well-funded national sections were created in many European and many non-European countries. Ostensibly opposed to all state restraint of cultural freedom and intellectual expression, the CCF concentrated its fire on Communism. A new CIA Division, the International Organizations Division (IOD) ran agents, Michael Josselson and Lawrence de Neufville, at the heart of the CCF, sanctioned by National Security Directive, NSC-68. Tom Braden, IOD Chief, fought for the establishment of the Division. "I was more interested in the ideas which were under fire from the Communists then I was in blowing up Guatemala." To protect his assets, Braden issued these instructions to IOD posts: "Limit the money to amounts private organizations can credibly spend; disguise the extent of American interest; protect the integrity of the organization by not requiring it to support every aspect of official American policy."
As Saunders points out, "Cultural Freedom did not come cheap." In fact, "Over the next seventeen years, the CIA was to pump tens of millions of dollars into the Congress for Cultural Freedom and related projects. With this kind of commitment, the CIA was in effect acting as America's Ministry of Culture." It was Allen Dulles' idea to organize most of this funding at arms length, through a "consortium" of "philanthropic foundations, business corporations, and other institutions and individuals, who worked hand in hand with the CIA to provide the cover." Dulles had moved to the CIA in 1950 as the case officer of the National Committee for a Free Europe, whose fund-raising wing was helped by a young actor, Ronald Reagan. The CIA role increased in 1954 when Cord Meyer replaced Tom Braden bringing fresh ideas and agents and stepping up the cultural war. The truth about the CIA's role in the CCF broke with the Patman revelations in 1964, the New York Times investigation of 1966 and the famous Ramparts expose of 1967.
SAUNDERS BOOK HAS FIVE GREAT STRENGTHS. First, it does not use the sins of the CCF to exculpate the crimes of Stalinism. Whatever perversion of "freedom" was involved in CCF intellectuals accepting CIA money Saunders is clear that "Freedom of any kind certainly wasn't on the agenda in the Soviet Union, where the writers and intellectuals who were not sent to the gulags were lassoed into serving the interests of the state." She acidly points out "None of the Communist-backed lobbies formed to defend the Rosenberg's publicized the fact that on the same day the Rosenberg Defense Committee was founded in France, eleven former leaders of the Czech Communist Party were executed in Prague."
Second, the book is a very impressive research effort. Though she leans on previous investigations, she has also conducted her own interviews with many of the key players and tracked down new documents "scattered across the dusty recesses of a number of archives." The narrative is fast-paced and easy to read (though it did feel in places like a 500-page magazine article). And she has a sense of humor, alive to the many absurdities of the tale, such as Arthur Koestler's enrichment by the French Communist Party which bought up every copy of his anti-communist novel Darkness at Noon, ensuring reprint after reprint rolled off the press.
Several CIA operations are revealed in detail. Her account of the CIA's Hollywood operation, "Militant Liberty" is well handled. We learn of Carleton Alsop, the CIA agent at Paramount persuading casting directors to place "well-dressed Negroes" in movies, part of the CIA's "Hollywood Formula" on how movies should depict to the world a free, equal and democratic America. The CIA financed the animation of Orwell's anti- Stalinist novel Animal Farm, but tailored its ending to cut its Third Camp message reversing Orwell's own intent. The efforts of CIA agent Sol Stein to doctor 1984 to the ideological needs of the USA are also carefully documented.
Saunders traces the CIA's role in funding the European Youth campaign, and those European political factions -- such as the British "revisionists" around Gaitskill -- who were moving closer to the idea of a united Europe linked to a democratic capitalist America. Jay Lovestone's role at the heart of this European operation is made clear. The smoking gun that shows the CIA funded the British Fabian Society journal, Venture, is here, alongside the claim that Denis Healy fed information about Labor Party members and trade unionists to the Information Research Department at the British Foreign Office. When the Labor Party beat the Conservatives in the 1964 general election, Michael Josselson, the CIA agent in the CCF wrote to Daniel Bell, "We are all pleased to have so many of our friends in the new government."
Third, the book demolishes the idea that the core CCF members did not know about the CIA's role in the CCF. Mind you this is hardly a scoop. Sidney Hook admitted in his 1987 memoir that those in the CCF who did not know "did not want to know." More interestingly, Saunders makes an intriguing argument about the CIA role in deliberately breaking its connection to the "NCL" in the late 1960s. Tom Braden, CIA chief controller of the CCF until 1954, wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post in May 1967 ("I'm Glad the CIA is Immoral"), which gave solid proof of the CIA-CCF link complete with names, dates and places. Josselson was devastated. Saunders speculates that Braden, ostensibly retired, was still acting for the CIA, possibly for President Lyndon Johnson. Her thesis is that the CIA broke the link to the non- communist left not just because Ramparts had blown its cover but also because the "NCL" -- under the impact of the war in Vietnam -- was proving unreliable. James Burnham wrote an article in The National Review in 1967 which Saunders quotes at length. She speculates that Burnham was either in touch with, or was the author of, or had divined the thinking behind, the calculated cutting loose of the CCF by Braden and the CIA. Burnham wrote:
The CIA mounted most of these activities in the perspective of "the non- Communist Left." The CIA estimated the NCL as a reliably anti-Communist force [but] this political estimate is mistaken. The NCL is not reliable. Under the pressure of critical events the NCL loosened. A large portion -- in this country as in others -- swung toward an anti-American position, and nearly all the NCL softened its attitude toward Communism and the Communist nations. Thus the organizational collapse is derivative from the political error. The political error is the doctrine that the global struggle against Communism must be based on the NCL -- a doctrine fastened on the CIA by Allen Dulles. Cuba, the Dominican Republic and above all Vietnam have put the NCL doctrine and practice to a decisive test. A large part of the organizations and individuals nurtured by the CIA under the NCL prescription end up undermining the nation's security. (401)
Saunders quotes CIA agent Jack Thompson, the longest serving Executive Director of the Fairfield Foundation, which was used by the CIA to channel funds to the CCF. "I have an imaginary scenario: President Johnson is sitting at his desk in the Oval office, and he's shuffling through some papers. He finds a copy of Encounter magazine. And he says 'Hey, what's this?' And someone says, 'It's your magazine, Mr President.' And he says, 'My magazine? My magazine! These are guys who think my war is wrong and they're writing in my magazine?' And that's it."
The fourth strength of Saunders book is the insight it provides into the world-view and sensibility of the early CIA and CCF. Both, it seems, possessed that self-image akin to Harry and his men at Agincourt: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," the last defenders of culture and civilization against the Goths and philistines. This was no simple cloak and dagger affair. Many, especially in the early days of the CIA, possessed an almost Eliotic, modernist, even cerebral sensibility. This elitism helped to bond those witting and unwitting figures in the CIA-CCF nexus, from James Jesus Angleton to Irving Kristol to Lionel Trilling. Saunders depicts the CCF as a mix of crusading politics and gravy-train. The zeal of the CCF in its early days is compared by Diana Josselson to "the first hundred days of the Kennedy administration . . . It was electric. You felt you were in touch with everything going on everywhere. Things were blossoming, it was vital . . . it was like the French Revolution or the Oxford Movement. That's what it felt like."
But the scale of the largesse, claims Saunders, meant "scores of western intellectuals were now roped to the CIA by an "umbilical cord of gold." She takes her reader to the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, northern Italy, "available to the Congress as an informal retreat for its more eminent members -- a kind of officers mess where frontliners in the Kulterkampf could recover their energies." The awe-struck Hannah Arendt [who had experienced the inside of a Nazi detention camp], writes to her friend Mary McCarthy that "You feel as if you are lodged in a kind of Versailles. The place has 53 servants, including men who take care of the gardens. The staff is presided over by a kind of headwaiter who dates from the time of the 'principassa' and has face and manner of a great gentleman of fifteenth-century Florence." Top-table CCF stars were housed at the Connaught in London, the Inghilterra in Rome, or, if calling on Irving Brown in Paris, the Royal Suite at the Hotel Baltimore. A fight for freedom paid for by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Fifth, the book shows that the choice "for the West" corroded political and intellectual independence. The phenomenon of Stalinophobia does not refer to being "too anti- Stalinist." One can no more be "too anti-Stalinist" than one can be "too anti-Nazi." Stalinophobia is the loss of political bearings because, in one's mind, the crimes of Stalinism have overwhelmed all else, most importantly the crimes of capitalism and imperialism. Saunders quotes Phillip Rahv on the nature of Stalinophobia when he warned, "Anti-Stalinism has become almost a professional stance. It has come to mean so much that it excludes nearly all other concerns and ideas, with the result that they are trying to turn anti-Stalinism into something which it can never be: a total outlook on life, no less, or even a philosophy of history." The feel of Stalinophobia was captured by Mary McCarthy when writing to Hannah Arendt in March 1952 about the mindset of some of her fellow CCF members:
They live in terror of a revival of the situation that prevailed in the thirties, when the fellow travellers were powerful in teaching, publishing, the theater etc., when Stalinism was the gravy train and these people were off it. These people were . . . really traumatized by the brief Stalinist apogee of the thirties . . . In their dreams, this period is always recurring; it is "realler" than today. Hence they scarcely notice the deteriorating actuality and minimize Senator McCarthy as not relevant.
In his 1969 essay, "The Cultural Cold War: A Short History of the Congress for Cultural Freedom," Christopher Lasch argued that choosing the demigod 'the West' stilled the criticism of the men who presided over the West. In the ensuing silence grew a murmuring and then a clamor of celebration. Lasch was right that Encounter magazine "consistently approved the broad lines and even the details of American policy." When Dwight Macdonald, in 1958, submitted an article to Encounter, wittily titled "America! America!" -- a critique of the celebratory discourse about the U.S. then popular among intellectuals -- it was rejected. Melvin Lasky's original dream of a CIA-backed journal with an "unafraid self-critical tone . . . a living demonstration of how the democratic mind works" was simply ridiculous. That's not how Faustian pacts work. Goethe had Mephistopheles set out very clearly the nature of the pact Faust was entering: "Here, an unwearied slave, I'll wear thy tether/ And to thine every nod obedient be:/ When There again we come together/ Then shalt thou do the same for me." Macdonald commented that for the editors of Encounter, "the publication of my article might embarrass the Congress [for Cultural Freedom] in its relations with the America foundations which support it." The rejection of Macdonald's article gives the lie to Sidney Hook's claim that "there is not a single action that the Congress took or failed to take that could be attributed to the fact that it was subsidized in part indirectly by United States funds." More obvious still, if the CCF had been committed to civil liberties in the U.S. it would have energetically opposed McCarthyism from the outset.2 In fact, as Saunders shows, detail piled on detail, "the American Congress of Cultural Freedom (ACCF) like Encounter, sought to deny or minimize the risks to culture of McCarthyism."
Lasch was also right that choosing "the West" led, over time, to self-censorship by those who had "so completely assimilated the official point of view that they were no longer aware of the way in which their writing had come to serve as rationalizations of American world power." Lasch related this self-censorship to the changing social function and status of the intellectual. The Leviathan state needed to absorb intellectuals on a larger scale than ever before and few intellectuals were complaining. "As a group, intellectuals had achieved a semi-official status which assigned them professional responsibility for the machinery of education and for cultural affairs in general. Within this sphere -- within the schools, the universities, the theater, the concert hall and the politico-literary magazines -- they had achieved both autonomy and affluence, as the social value of their services became apparent to the government, to corporations and to the foundations." Saunders cites Time magazine, "The man of Protest has given way to the man of Affirmation." Far from the intellectual "speaking the truth to power" Partisan Review's Lionel Trilling summed up the new relationship: "Intellect has associated itself with power, perhaps as never before in History." Saunders main charge against the CCF is precisely that "the natural procedures of intellectual enquiry" were distorted by this new relationship to the state.
Yes, despite these strengths, the framework adopted by Saunders -- the CIA calling the tunes played by its bought piper, the CCF -- is too limiting. The fundamentally political and ideological nature of the choices made by the CCF intellectuals during this extreme moment of the twentieth century are missed amid the tales of 'secret agents' and 'assets.' There is a heavy price to pay for telling the story of the CCF as a conspiracy story.
That moment was marked by three catastrophes. First, the rolling across Europe, and Asia, of the Stalinist armies and the imposition of totalitarianism wherever they conquered. The politically conscious "third-campers" aside, those who did not make the choice for the West usually persuaded themselves this represented some kind of progress. In other words most indulged what Julian Symons called the "selfish refusal to face disillusionment." The second catastrophe was what Orwell called the "intellectual and moral disgrace on a massive scale" of the fellow traveller. This was a world in which "socialists" wrote odes to Stalin (Neruda) and painted portraits of Stalin (Picasso). It was a world in which Stalinized French doctors backed Stalin's ravings about a [Jewish] "Doctors Plot" in Russia in 1953. (The "Doctors Plot" was the signal for a pogrom of the Jews but mercifully Stalin died first.) In other words this was a period of intense political warfare that the Stalinists seemed to be winning and in which large chunks of the left were debasing themselves.4 The third catastrophe, and the most crucial, was the collapse of hope in the prospects of a democratic socialist Third Camp emerging in Europe, opposed to both Moscow and Washington and led by the working class.
In his memoirs, Irving Howe, a severe critic of the CCF who called its partisans "not even free men," sought to recreate for his reader that extreme moment in 20th century history when he deserted the Third Camp and "chose the West":
The fear of World War was real. It was a warranted fear . . . Wherever Stalinism conquered, freedom vanished. It was necessary, therefore, to strengthen resistance among the bourgeois democratic states in Europe, as they existed at that moment, and not wait for some presumed perfection in the future. This meant to support the Marshall Plan . . . to help, if possible, the liberal anticommunist forces . . . It was an uncomfortable politics . . . but I think it was a correct politics. That the Communists in France and Italy never came close to taking power is by no means evidence that we overestimated the danger: I would say it is evidence of how necessary it had been to put barriers in their path. And real barriers -- power, money, politics --not just articles in intellectual journals.
To this Sidney Hook added:
Our conviction was that we were already in fact if not de jure, engaged in a defensive war with Communism -- the war was actually raging in Korea -- and our fears that its flames would spread and engulf Western Europe. We were in daily contact with a stream of refugee intellectuals, whose harrowing tales of persecution not only moved us deeply but gave us a sense of guilt. Yes, there was an element of deception in not making public what we knew or suspected [about the CIA funding -- AJ]. In war even more deplorable deceptions are accepted even by the most honorable. ( . . . ) Our conviction that in all likelihood we would soon be involved in a European war, triggered by the advance of the Red Army or an attempt by the Communist party in France or Italy to take power, accounted for the stilling of uneasiness about our funding.5
These memoirs, as I read them, describe a tragic Faustian Pact with Mephistopheles/"the West." They do not amount to "pipers" bought and paid for and "playing" CIA tunes.
Stalinism dissolved the left as an independent force not only by torture, murder and the Gulag but also by forcing on it mental reflexes which destroyed its capacity for independent thinking. Truth and justice were held at a distance, arrived at cautiously, instrumentally, once the consequences for your favored "camp" -- one state power or another -- had been worked out. Left-wingers schooled in this way became inveterate self-deceivers and pollutants of the culture of the left. Sartre's convoluted apologia for tyranny, which began this review, would be a case in point. The shameful response of much of the left to Solidarnosc would be another. Why did many socialists eulogize Pablo Neruda (composer of Ode to Stalin) but say nothing -- scared of being accused of "Cold War rhetoric" perhaps -- about Osip Mandelstam (the great poet who perished in the Gulag because he wrote a poem with the line "His cockroach whiskers leer/And his boot tops gleam")? Do not such "socialists" bear responsibility for Mandelstam's fate? And how many Osip Mandelstam's were there?
We have to broach these questions, painful as they are. We have to plumb the gists of what -- in our theory and practice, our ethics, our conception of socialism -- made such disastrous accommodation to totalitarian power possible. In the absence of our comprehensive democratic socialist account the gap is being filled by the "Red Genocide" framework of the 800 page Black Book on Communism produced by the Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique in Paris, which traces an unbroken line of criminal continuity from Marx to Pol Pot.
A simplistic ex cathedra dismissal of those socialist and social-democratic intellectuals who "chose the West" in the 1940's and 1950's will prevent us critically reappropriating what remains valuable in their legacy. Elements of that legacy might yet contribute to clearing up the theoretical and normative confusion about what socialism is and has been. This confusion predated Stalinism and can be traced back to the fact that socialism has always meant two very different things -- the authoritarian imposition by an elite of a blueprint for a planned society, necessarily anti-democratic, illiberal and doomed to stagnation, and popular democratic control of society, "of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority": the two "souls of socialism." But Stalinism made that chronic historic confusion about the meaning of socialism into an acute, full-blown, near-fatal crisis. The majority of "socialists" throughout the world became exactly what the liberals said they were: authoritarians.
Our retrieval of liberty and democracy as constitutive of socialism -- a necessary condition for the future viability of socialism as a political project -- has a long way to go. It will not be helped by a mental reflex, which Saunders book might unwittingly strengthen: the fear of giving succor to "the" enemy that stops us speaking the truth. For example Saunders routinely labels as "Cold War rhetoric" the statement of Alfred Barr that "The modern artist's non-conformity and love of freedom cannot be tolerated within a monolithic tyranny and modern art is useless for the dictator's propaganda." But what Barr said was true. Another example of this mental reflex is Jason Epstein's view, invoked by Saunders, that, "Come Vietnam and . . . anti-Stalinism gets used to justify our own aggression. These people get into a real bind now. They're caught with their pants down: they have to defend Vietnam because they've toed the anti-Communist line." We have to realize just how disastrous this argument has been for the left. Its "logic" (which the example of Mary McCarthy, to mention only her, refutes) is that anti-Stalinism=anti-Communism=support for the Vietnam War. The argument relegates the left to the status of satellite, destined to revolve in the orbit of one state power or another.
Saunders book unwittingly chimes in with this mental reflex because its piper/tune framework suggests militant opposition to Russia was the antechamber to the CIA check-book and neo-conservatism. For example, Saunders tells us Malcolm Muggeridge's truthful account of the Soviet Union, Winter in Moscow (1933), "marked the beginning of his political transformation into an agent for MI6." Despite Saunders intentions, such statements might be read as saying that it was the very fact of his militant truth-telling about Russia which led him into the arms of MI6, the British spying organization. I think this matters, today, because the mental reflex itself is alive and well and as damaging as ever. How many failed to face the truth about murderous Serbian sub-imperialism, or to rouse opposition to it, because their overriding concern was to "give no comfort to NATO"? How many effectively became critical supporters of NATO, refusing to oppose the bombing of Serbia, because their overriding concern was to "give no comfort to Milosovic"?
This "campist" mentality is unwittingly indulged by Saunders. For instance she quotes approvingly the cold contempt of Deutscher for George Orwell ("a Freudian sublimation of persecution mania") while what we really need is a sober realization that Deutscher -- still near-universally eulogized on the left -- was a man who opposed all the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe and said "Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland and East Germany) found itself on the brink of bourgeois restoration at the end of the Stalin era; and only Soviet armed power (or its threat) stopped it there."
Another example is Saunders's treatment of the famous 1948 Russian backed and fellow-traveller-organized Waldorf Astoria "Peace Conference." A small ad hoc group, Americans for Intellectual Freedom, led by the still youngish Sidney Hook, disrupted the Waldorf conference by raising in session after session the question of Stalinist abuses of human rights, exposing the hypocrisy of the sponsors and the fellow- travellers who attended, and pointing out that the real purpose of the event was political warfare for the Soviet state. Yet Saunders seeks to enlist us, emotionally, to the side of the conference organizers and supporters such as Arthur Miller. She sneers at the Hook group and finds their behavior "appalling" for embarrassing the Russian visitors. The faux naïf words of Arthur Miller are passed on a good coin, "The conference was an effort to continue a good tradition." What good tradition can he mean? The power-worship of the intellectual? The selfish refusal to face disillusionment? Apologetics for "Uncle Joe"? One has such a choice.
When one considers the actual exchanges at the Waldorf conference it becomes odder and odder that sympathy should be extended to its organizers and contempt poured on those who tried to challenge them (I suspect Saunders is here following the lead of Garry Wills' dreadful introduction to Lillian Hellman's book, Scoundrel Time). A typical exchange went thus. An AIF supporter stands up at the panel on "Planning and Building" and proposes a resolution calling on Russia to rehabilitate eighteen architect- victims of the purges. The Chair dismisses this as unconstructive and moves on. A left that finds it hard to take sides when it looks back at this exchange does not deserve a 21st century future.
The facts are well known. Despite a philistine assault on the abstract expressionists in the U.S. Congress, led by George Dondero, the CIA realized the potential of abstraction to be manipulated as a tool in the cultural Cold War as an embodiment of western freedom contrasted sharply against grey Stalinist conformity. Bypassing the U.S. Congress, the CIA worked with the Museum of Modern Art to promote the abstract expressionists, funding touring exhibitions in Europe. President Eisenhower himself, no fan of Still, Rothko, Newman or Pollock one suspects, endorsed MoMA, and its modern art program, as "a pillar of liberty."
According to Saunders it was for political -- not aesthetic -- reasons that abstract expressionism was promoted by MoMA. She reduces abstract expressionism to its Cold War context. She writes, of Jackson Pollock, "In his splurgy, random knot of lines which threaded their way across the canvas and over the edges, [Pollock] seemed to be engaged in the act of rediscovering America," and upholding "the Great American myth of the Lone Voice." Saunders finds "eerily prophetic" a yahoo-philistine attack on the abstract expressionists carried in the Stalinist magazine Masses and Mainstream in 1952 titled "Dollars, Doodles and Death." This is all in line with the "art criticism" of Serge Guilbaut, the author of How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (the anti-Americanism and Gallic nationalism of sections of the French left is beyond parody). This book crudely reduced abstract expressionism to a tool of U.S. foreign policy. (Of course, Guilbaut promoted the Stalinist socialist-realist tool Andre Fougeron, a true Zhdanovist who attacked Picasso for the lack of reverence in his portrait of Stalin.) Saunders' sneer at Pollock's "splurgy, random knot of lines" appears in a chapter titled "Yankee Doodles." She also passes on as a penetrating insight Ad Reinhardt's jibe that Pollock was just a "Harpers Bazaar bum," and implies abstract expressionism was a giant fraud played out on the public. We are told, via the voice of Jason Epstein, "this stuff is rubbish."
There are political, aesthetic and historiographical problems with all this. First, why is it so hard to admit that abstract expressionism was proof of the greater cultural freedom of "the West"? Take the year 1948. In Russia, Zhdanov, Stalin's cultural policeman, gathered together composers and critics and issued his cultural edicts and orders and banishments. In response, Shostakovitch, criticized for his Ninth Symphony, duly composed a piece in praise of Stalin's forestry plan as an apology.8 In the same year Clyfford Still painted 1948-D, Philip Guston The Tormentors, Barnett Newman, Onement 1, Robert Motherwell's magnificent Spanish Elegies series was underway, and Jackson Pollock painted his masterpiece Number 1A. It was a moment of remarkable human artistic power and creativity. That's what the CIA saw! That's why they could use it!
Saunders reduces all this to "random," "splurgy," "doodles" and CIA cash. We are, thankfully, spared the cliché, "a five year old could do it." The best antidote to anyone infected with this philistinism is to get him or her to spend five minutes in front of Pollock's masterpiece Lavender Mist. Those lines are not random. I suspect that lurking in Saunders account is a sheer disbelief that the USA (of all places!) could produce the greatest art movement of the mid-twentieth century.
The tragedy of abstract expressionism lay in the political impossibility of that aesthetic project at that historical moment, and here is the real parallel to the CCF intellectuals, I think. They were driven, said the late Peter Fuller -- listen to the echo of the Howe and Hook memoirs quoted earlier -- "by what they felt as the necessity of bearing witness to their experience of that terrible moment of history through which they lived." The real connections between the abstract expressionist artists and CCF intellectuals lie here, first, in the impulse to take a stand for individual personality and freedom in an age of tyranny and conformity, This impulse was absorbed into the "official" culture via the fatal embrace of state patronage, prestige, wealth and success. They failed to maintain their independence. Second, both were isolated from a social agency or a political project that consistently stood for freedom and was able to sustain a movement, artistic or intellectual, not dependent on one form or other of state patronage. Unable to see any alternative to a spiritually bankrupt consumer-capitalism and a totalitarian "socialism" both retreated: the artists to the "ancient" the "timeless" the "mythical" and the private cultivation of the "self," and to alcohol (not to the "rediscovery of America" as Saunders says), the intellectuals to a notion of "freedom," which shut its eyes to the un-freedom of corporate power, American imperialism and McCarthyism. Their respective Faustian pacts with Power -- theorized by Clement Greenberg for the abstract expressionists, for the CCF by Hook and others -- produced over time a descent into, respectively, "art officiel" and "house intellectual" and a decline into mere mannerism.
All this is rather more complicated than a piper playing a tune. In fact what David Anfam has said -- in irritated response to Guilbaut's notion that New York "stole" modern art and turned it into a weapon of the Cold War -- could stand as a criticism of Saunders notion that the CIA played the intellectual opposition to Stalinism like a Wurlitzer. Pointing out the "unrelenting narrowness" of Guilbaut's thesis Anfam asked "What might Marx himself have made of these foreclosed horizons whereon bad faith masquerades as acuity. Firstly, the art [or, here, the ideas of the CCF -- AJ] is turned into a cipher because it receives little serious attention. Once effaced, its features then mirror solely those of the original Cold War climate and its ambient political strategies."9
Lillian Hellman has more in common with her reactionary anti-Stalinist enemies than she realizes. Irving Kristol, Sidney Hook and friends practice the kind of politics dear to Hellman's heart. Having opted for "the West" they are loud and clear in their defense of the victims of Stalinism with barely a word about those persecuted by U.S. imperialism and its client countries. They have not "come forward" to defend Smith Act or McCarthy victims. We hear nothing from them today about those persecuted by the CIA and the FBI. Lillian Hellman having chosen "Stalin Communism" never came forward to defend or support the victims of Stalinism. On the contrary, in her Stalinist zeal she attacked them. She defended and supported only the victims of Western imperialism. Both practiced the vulgar politics dictated by the notion that the enemies of my enemy are my friends. As camp followers they were mirror images of each other."10
Indeed. And one way to read Faust is as a morality tale about the importance of self-reliance and the dangers of putting faith in demigods. Goethe has a Chorus of Spirits observe Faust strike his pact with the Devil. They warn Faust: "Woe! Woe!/ Thou hast it destroyed/ The beautiful world/With powerful fist/ In ruin tis hurled/By the blow of a demigod shattered!" But then, in words I find relevant for the left today -- as we stand amid the rubble of the "workers states" but with the glorious green shoots of a global anti-capitalist movement poking up around our feet -- the Chorus of Spirits urges on Faust the possibility of an alternative based on self-reliance: "Brightlier/Build it again/In thine own bosom build it anew/ Bid the new career/ Commence, / With clearer sense/And the new songs of cheer/Be sung thereto!"
Contents of No. 31
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