How I wrote The Liberal Conspiracy


Peter Coleman

From The Last Intellectuals: Essays on Writers and Politics, Quadrant Books, 2010

WOULDN’T have your job for all the tea in China!” announced Diana Trilling as she waved me into her apartment in Upper West Side Manhattan, her pop eyes bulging under dishevelled reddened hair. “Your story is littered with broken friendships! What a cesspit!”

It was 1983 and I had called on her to talk about the book I was researching on writers and the Cold War, or more specifically on the Congress for Cultural Freedom. She had played a lively role in its dramas, especially in those of its turbulent American Committee. She was also one of the grand old ladies of American letters, a distinguished critic and a formidable polemicist.

She had a point, however exaggerated. The writers and intellectuals in the Congress for Cultural Freedom were, like writers everywhere, temperamental and quarrelsome. They also had much to be temperamental and quarrelsome about. The Congress had begun in 1950 in the determina¬tion to defend cultural freedom against an encroaching Soviet Gulag with its hundreds of imprisoned writers. In the following fifteen or sixteen years, it had largely fulfilled its mission — through a network of brilliant magazines (most famously Encounter in London) and a series of dazzling international conferences in centres ranging from Hamburg and Milan to Vienna and Bombay. Then, quite suddenly, it had disintegrated amid the scandalous revelation that much of its funding had come from the CIA.

There were recriminations, libels, and the broken friendships that Trilling mentioned. But most of the figures I was in touch with were more than willing to talk about events which they (like me) saw as an epic drama in dangerous times — although there was also a handful who simply did not want to discuss the matter. (The most important of these was Sir Stephen Spender who, whenever I was in London, always seemed to be setting out for France.) One writer insisted that I sign an undertaking not to quote him under any circumstances.

But in the end Diana Trilling had overstated my problem. The scurrilous attacks on the Congress were water on a duck’s back to me. I had met a number of the Congress figures during their tours of Australia — Robert Conquest, Deepak Lal, Tibor Meray, Malcolm Muggeridge, James T. Farrell, Sidney Hook, Isaiah Berlin, Minoo Masani, Richard Pipes, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Their integrity and liberalism could not be seriously challenged.

I had also for some years been editor of Quadrant, which was originally sponsored by the Congress as a sort of sister journal to Encounter. I knew that wherever the Congress’s funds came from, they had zero influence on any editorial decisions made in or by Quadrant. Any subsidy that trickled down to us came with no strings whatsoever attached. That did not stop all sorts of scoundrels from defaming us. Whatever criticism should be made of the CIA and its concealed funding, I was determined to do justice to the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its achievements.

There were more serious problems than arguments and insults, “telegrams and anger”. One was the death of many of the key people. Michael Josselson, the organisational genius of the Congress, was dead. So was its secretary-general, the composer Nicolas Nabokov. Others who had played important roles at one time or another — Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Ignazio Silone, Michael Polanyi, Nicola Chiaromonte, Dwight Macdonald, Robert Oppenheimer — had also died. Arthur Koestler had suicided and James Burnham had suffered a stroke that left him without memory.

In a number of these cases I was able to speak to the families and sometimes consult their papers. Diana Josselson was particularly helpful, as were Patricia Blake (Nabokov), Darina Silone and Miriam Chiaromonte. Koestler’s executor gave me access to the relevant Koestler papers, and Burnham’s family put his Connecticut cottage with all his papers at my disposal.

But there were scores of Congress survivors. One difficulty was that they lived all over the world from Munich to Tel Aviv, from Cambridge, Mass., to Paris, from Seoul to Johannesburg. Finding them was a costly business but my parliamentary work sometimes took me to these places where I could try to fit in an interview or two. (I have listed the interviewees in The Liberal Conspiracy.)

ANOTHER PROBLEM was earning their trust. After all the malicious, even vicious attacks on the Congress, some of its supporters were suspicious of me, reluctant to open up to a stranger. One or two did not answer my letters or return my calls. But once the point of trust was reached, many of them were unstoppable.

One of these was Mel Lasky of Encounter. I particularly recall his long oral memoir, in his old manor house in West Sussex, of his soulmate, Michael Josselson — now shouting, now whispering, as he relived the triumphs of the Congress (and its long death rattle). The whole story began in Berlin in the late 1940s when Lasky and Josselson silently watched trainloads of Soviet prisoners being transported from the West to death in the Gulag. At that dreadful moment, these two Russian Jews decided to save Western civilisation.

My main worry with Lasky was that my time in London was running out and I had not yet been able to examine the records of Encounter. He then offered me the keys of his Haymarket office and filing cabinets. Why not, he said, spend the weekend on them? They were indeed an invaluable treasure trove. Given all the past and continuing controversies, Lasky’s offer was a moving act of trust. His openness remains with me. It is irritating (to put it mildly) when I come across snide references to him as “devious” and “deceitful”.

Or take Rajat Neogy, the brilliant Bengali editor of the Congress’s Uganda monthly Transition, one of the best magazines ever published in Africa. In 1968, following the CIA scandals, the dictator Milton Obote arrested him and held him for six months in a cell eight feet by five feet. When old Congress friends around the world sent protests to Kampala, Obote would scrawl “CIA” across the page and toss it aside. After Idi Amin supplanted Obote, Rajat Neogy changed his name to Amin in his honour. (He was soon disenchanted, as Idi Amin expelled all Indians from Uganda.) Some years after these events I tracked Rajat down in the Mission district of San Francisco where he was working on an “alternative” newspaper. He was cool, detached, and helpful. But he was obviously a damaged man.

There were other striking interviews: Irving Kristol in the New York Sports Club on how he started Encounter (“It was easy. There was nothing to read in London”); Eskia Mphalele in Johannesburg on how he organised in Uganda the first conference of African writers ever held in Africa, including Ngugi wa Thiong’o; Hoki Ishihara, editor of the Congress magazine Jiyu in Tokyo, on the fire-bombing of his house following the CIA “revelations”; Ulli Beier in Annandale, Sydney, on his part in the Nigerian literary renaissance of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo (“What kept me going was the excitement of it all”); Leo Labedz, editor of (Soviet) Survey, at his Oxford Street office, London, about smuggling manuscripts from behind the Iron Curtain (he talked for seven hours straight); Daniel Bell in Cambridge, Mass., on his historic international conferences from Oxford to Tokyo (and, movingly, on the Congress intellectuals whose careers had been wrecked by the CIA connection); and Raymond Aron in the College de France (“Where is your machine?” he asked. He insisted I tape-record the interview and not risk losing any of his words). This list does not include countless conversations in Sydney with the irrepressible Richard Krygier, the publisher of Quadrant, to whom (and his wife Roma) I dedicated The Liberal Conspiracy.

There were moments of light relief. When John Kenneth Galbraith warmly welcomed me to his estate in Vermont (“Did you bring your swimsuit?”), it soon became apparent that he thought I was an emissary from Prime Minister Bob Hawke, come to talk about his forthcoming visit to Australia. But he remained a generous and patrician host. When I was leaving, he urged me to disregard the eulogies he had once lavished on the Congress. Its conferences, he said, were only junkets. “A misuse of taxpayers’ funds?” I asked. He guffawed: “We deserved it!”

BUT INTERVIEWS were not enough. I could not write an appraisal of the Congress without first working through its huge archive in the Special Collections of the Joseph Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago. Edward Shils had lodged the archive there and retained control of it. To have access, I needed his permission. But he did not know me and had no compelling reason to trust me with the papers and private letters of all sorts of grand figures from W.H. Auden and Pierre Boulez to Bertrand Russell and Igor Stravinsky. It was necessary for me to travel to Chicago to be sized up.

At that time I was Administrator of Norfolk Island, the ultimate South Pacific refuge of the Bounty mutineers and Pitcairners. I arrived in Chicago in the weekend of the US presidential election which Ronald Reagan won in a landslide. Shils turned out to be a baffling mixture of cultivated scholar, hilarious gossip and punctilious formalist. (To his dying day he addressed me as Mr Coleman, never Peter.) We talked almost non-stop for several days. I began to feel that my cause was doomed. Then suddenly one morning Shils announced that he had overnight read my book on James McAuley. “Such poetry!” he said. “Of course, Mr Coleman, you must have access to the archives!”

There was still one last condition. To answer any critics of his decision (there were a couple), Shils wanted what amounted to a character reference from the Governor-General, Sir Zelman Cowen, who knew us both. (Sir Zelman had been President of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom.) Sir Zelman kindly wrote to Shils and the matter was settled.

Assisted by the Ford Foundation, I photocopied mountains of Congress papers. In the following years I also visited the Joseph Regenstein Library whenever I could. (Remember I was a part-time writer and for some years in the 1980s a full-time parliamentarian.) After I left parliament I found time to finish the book. I then needed a publisher. I had had none in mind, naively confident that it would find one.

Luckily, out of the blue, a letter arrived from the late Erwin Glikes of the Free Press in New York asking to see the manuscript. He liked it. Glikes, like so many in this story, has been often defamed for his publishing policies. I found him helpful and generous with his time — an exemplary publisher. He provided me with an office in Third Avenue where he and his editors went through the manuscript painstakingly.
The Liberal Conspiracy was published in 1989. It was widely and well reviewed in the United States. In England it fell dead-born from the press. It had mixed reviews in Australia (see my “Reflections on the Reception of a Book”, Quadrant, January-February 1993).

In any case I enjoyed writing it enormously. But I think my conclusion was too moderate. I said the Congress had done its bit in the culture wars to make things “less worse”. I would now go further: it embodied, more than any other movement, the moral dimension of the Cold War. It was an historic success.

DOES THAT SUCCESS have any lessons for the twenty-first century and the age of terror? The Congress for Cultural Freedom collapsed about forty years ago. It belonged to an almost forgotten era — like, say, the Crimean War. Some may think that discussing it is a form of Cold War antiquarianism.
Yet time and again in the recent discussions of the American “9/11 Report” — the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States — the idea has emerged of forming a new organisation on the lines of the CCF to combat Islamicist totalitarianism. Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post and David Brooks in the New York Times are representative.

We are not basically engaged, they say, in a war against terror. Terror is simply one terrible weapon among many. Nor is it a war against an axis of evil. It is an ideological conflict, an intellectual or cultural conflict, even a religious conflict. We stand for intellectual or cultural freedom against a perverse strand of Islam which uses terror to win converts or liquidate infidels. This struggle, the argument goes, calls for an organisation like the CCF to take the fight to the enemy. The answer to the question — Do we need a new Congress for Cultural Freedom? — may well be No. But the question is worth considering.

The CCF, as an organisation of writers and intellectuals, was formed in Berlin at the height of the Cold War, soon after the communist triumphs in Central Europe and China and at the moment of the North Korean attack on South Korea. It called on writers and intellectuals to abandon neutralism and say No to Stalin as they had once said No to Hitler.

Its real origins are earlier still. It grew out of the tense, frenzied and sometimes heart-wrenching ideological passions of the anti-Stalinist Left that emerged gradually in the late 1920s and more emphatically in the 1930s. Most (not all) of the participants in the Berlin 1950 Congress had in their youth been either communists or fellow travellers. All had been disenchanted by the series of terrible events in the USSR — the Ukrainian famine, the slave camps, the purges, the show trials, the Hitler–Stalin pact. They came to see the Soviet Union, in Solzhenitsyn’s phrase, as The Lie — indeed the underlying Lie of the age.
Some became Trotskyists, some Bukharinites, some liberals, a few even became conservatives. One or two, not many, returned to the religious faith of their fathers. Most preferred to call themselves anti-Stalinist rather than anticommunist: it left open the option that one day a true communism would emerge, free of Stalinist perversions.

Some names will illustrate the development: Dwight Macdonald, James Burnham, Daniel Bell, Melvin Lasky, Sidney Hook and the Partisan Review circle in New York. Bertrand Russell, Malcolm Muggeridge, George Orwell in England. Silone in Italy. Malraux in France. Koestler in Germany. John Anderson in Sydney caught something of their mood. They may be loosely summed up as the god-that-failed generation.

This made them independent and often realistic observers. But it also isolated them. They were on the anti-fascist Left, but they had no place in the Communist Party or among the friends of the Soviet Union, the fellow travellers. They saw a world dominated by Stalin as a variant of a world dominated by Hitler.
They lived in no-man’s-land, homeless Cassandras producing their bulletins or little magazines in small back rooms, forming splinter groups without influence. These ideological acrobats emerged in almost every city in the world — from London to Bombay, from Manhattan to Melbourne. They had similar experiences and insights but they did not know each other or even know of each other.

This all changed — in Berlin in June 1950 — when the magazine Der Monat brought together 100 anticommunist, anti-fascist, liberal leftist writers and intellectuals in something called a Congress for Cultural Freedom. It sounded vaguely leftist. It was meant to be a oncer. But, as it turned out, there was too large an agenda for one conference: Franco’s Spain, the British and French empires in Asia and Africa, civil rights in the USA, Peron’s Argentina, and above all Stalinism and The Lie. They decided to create, if possible, a continuing Congress for Cultural Freedom.

It took a year or two but in the end it had its Executive Committee from around the world and its Secretariat in Paris under the inspirational leadership of Michael Josselson. It was one of the biggest and most ambitious movements of writers and intellectuals ever contemplated. It adopted, bit by bit, a four-fold program. There would be networks of international magazines (such as Encounter) and of national committees from Buenos Aires to Delhi, from Paris to Tokyo. There would be a continuing series of international conferences on the issues of the day (economic planning, science and freedom, the end of ideology, the Third World), supplemented by smaller conferences organised by the national committees. There would be programs to help writers behind the Iron Curtain — with books, stipends, scholarships, cultural exchanges, and publication in the West.

IT HAD MANY SUCCESSES in the 1950s — magazines, conferences, protests, and support of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain (especially at the time of the Hungarian Revolution). But there were also many failures. Its biggest — and for the moment the most relevant — was its failure to have any serious influence in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In 1955, the Paris Secretariat organised an international conference in Rangoon (forty respected intellectuals from ten Asian countries) with the idea that it would be an Asian Berlin, culminating in the formation of a lively international Asian Congress for Cultural Freedom. But it was a flop. It had no influence, and it was quickly and almost totally forgotten.

The following year the Paris Secretariat asked its “Asian bureau” to issue a statement condemning the suppression of the Poznan uprising in Poland. But not one intellectual in Japan, Indonesia or Thailand was willing to sign. In the same year the Congress’s magazine in India, Quest, did not so much as mention, even in passing, the Hungarian Revolution or its brutal suppression.

In Africa it also began with high hopes, both literary and political. It espoused decolonisation, negritude, and the campaign against apartheid. It promoted the Black Orpheus writers in Nigeria, the Transition circle in Uganda, Ali Mazrui in East Africa, Dennis Brutus in Rhodesia and Bloke Modisane in South Africa. Then its network collapsed in the mid-1960s — in civil war, prison and (alleged) sedition. As already noted, one Congress editor in Uganda was jailed for six months, in solitary confinement.
In the Middle East in 1962 the Congress launched a literary magazine, Hiwar, edited by a Palestinian poet, in the hope of bringing together Arab and Western writers. It organised literary conferences, a literary prize, and a series of seminars in Beirut, Tunis and Karachi, aimed at liberalising and modernising Islam.

One of the last in the series was in Beirut in 1967 — when speaker after speaker vied with each other in denouncing the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the United States and the CIA. It was, as one witness summed up, “un veritable fiasco”. The same could be said of almost all the CCF’s seminars on Islam and indeed on the Third World.

Some CCF supporters concluded that Asian and African intellectuals are so basically anti-American that they would never support an organisation or movement funded by the United States. Others, slightly more optimistic, warned that quick results should not be expected, that liberals must take the long view, keep a low-key liberal presence, and encourage the sense of belonging to an interna¬tional community. Modest goals but achievable.

In short, the Congress’s great success in the 1950s was in the West. Its mission was to open the eyes of the fellow travellers to the facts of totalitarianism. Its leaders and supporters understood this struggle. They could speak the ideological dialect. They were the Spanish Civil War generation, veterans whose god had failed. They knew the fellow travellers (and non-party communists) intimately because they themselves had come from their ranks. They also knew that the writers and intellectuals they wanted to reach had a hunger for cultural and intellectual freedom — and they did reach them. By the time of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 the Congress for Cultural Freedom had fulfilled its mission. That would have been a good moment to pack up.

* * *

SHOULD THE CONGRESS be revived today in the war against terror? Such a new CCF would appeal to liberal Muslims living in an Islamic no-man’s-land with a craving for Western freedom. They would be of an Islamic fundamentalist god-that-failed generation.

There is some evidence, but not much, of such a movement. British magazines such as Index on Censorship, among others, are doing their best to encourage it. It is hard going. But until a robust Islamic liberalism emerges, it would be absurd to repeat Arthur Koestler’s triumphant cry in Berlin in June 1950: “Freunde, die Freiheit hat die Offensive ergriffen!” (“Friends, freedom has seized the offensive!”)
Edward Shils in the old Congress understood the problem. In attempting to redefine the aim of the Congress in the 1960s, he argued that there is already a worldwide liberal community, however weak it may be. It has no corporate structure (as a professional association has), it has no formal hierarchy of authority (as the universities do) and it has no formal articles of faith (as churches do). But the African novelist, the Indonesian journalist, the Japanese mathematician and the Russian physicist do share a universalistic liberal faith that cuts across specialisms and ethnic, national or religious boundaries. It is something like the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. It exists, but it needs delineating and strengthening. This, he said, should be the task of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Today, forty years later, this would still be the mission of any new Congress. Its funding would have to be international. It would look to German, French, British, Japanese and Indian foundations as well as American. But it could not be pre-dominantly American. It would be slow work. It would have a long perspective. It may not be what the Bush Doctrine calls for. But it is the best chance of success.

* * *

Peter Coleman’s book The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe was published by the Free Press, New York, in 1989.

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