The Trojan Horse of Cultural Freedom. Part II

“The CCF was the cultural counterpart to NATO, such that each national intelligentsia must recognize their membership of a wider group of Western intellectuals”

The British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, who in 1948 established the Information Research Department (IRD), one of the most important think tanks of the Cold War, wrote in a secret internal document: “We must put forward a positive rival ideology [to communism].”

That ideology was specifically the ideology of “freedom”, raised on the banners of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), created in 1950 under the covert auspices of the CIA. Although no one openly dared to call it an ideology, because the presence of an ideology was seen as the mark of a “totalitarian” society, which was to be opposed by the “free world”.

Interestingly, the term Free World had entered the everyday political language of the West not long before that — in 1946, after Churchill’s Fulton speech that marked the beginning of the Cold War. Before that, during the years of allied relations with the USSR, “free world” was sometimes spoken about by Roosevelt and Churchill, but without an open anti-Soviet meaning.

The act of painting cultural freedom as an opposition to “totalitarianism” had pre-war roots, primarily associated with Trotskyism. For instance, in 1939, the Committee for Cultural Freedom, arguably a direct predecessor of the CCF, was established by Sidney Hook, an American philosopher, one of the most prominent members of the CCF and a member of the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky in the mid-1930s. The committee did not exist for long, however, it managed to pave the way for Stalinism being equated with Hitlerism.

We should also mention the manifesto For an Independent Revolutionary Art, written in Mexico by Trotsky himself in 1938 together with the leader of surrealism, the French poet and writer André Breton (instead of Trotsky, the manifesto was signed by the artist Diego Rivera, who had them both for guests).

Although Trotsky and Breton dissociated themselves from “the fashionable catchword, ‘Neither fascism nor communism!’ – a shibboleth which suits the temperament of the philistine, conservative and frightened, clinging to the tattered remnants of the ‘democratic’ past” and made pious and pompous statements like “true art is unable not to be revolutionary, not to aspire to a complete and radical reconstruction of society. This it must do, were it only to deliver intellectual creation from the chains which bind it, and to allow all mankind to raise itself to those heights which only isolated geniuses have achieved in the past,” they nonetheless declared “the bureaucracy now in control of the Soviet Union” to be the “most treacherous and dangerous enemy” of communism and declared Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR to be equally vicious.

The regime of Hitler, now that it has rid Germany of all those artists whose work expressed the slightest sympathy for liberty, however superficial, has reduced those who still consent to take up pen or brush to the status of domestic servants of the regime, whose task it is to glorify it on order, according to the worst possible aesthetic conventions. If reports may be believed, it is the same in the Soviet Union, where Thermidorian reaction is now reaching its climax,” the manifesto continued.

And let us also quote this: “If, for the better development of the forces of material production, the revolution must build a socialist regime with centralized control, to develop intellectual creation an anarchist regime of individual liberty should from the first be established. No authority, no dictation, not the least trace of orders from above!”

The manifesto does not indicate exactly how to build a society that combines, on the one hand, discipline and subordination to a centralized plan, and, on the other, complete anarchy of intellectual and artistic production. And how one can be an artist and a revolutionary while at the same time being independent of political revolution.

In a letter to Breton dated December 22, 1938, Trotsky also spoke of “artistic truth“, which is possible not by following the principles of this or that school, but only by “the immutable faith of the artist in his own inner self.” “‘You shall not lie!’ — that is the formula of salvation,” exclaimed Trotsky, adding that the artist must seek his own way, “not relying upon orders from outside, but rejecting such orders and heaping scorn upon all who submit to them.”

At first glance, it sounds beautiful, albeit somewhat bombastic. But one wonders: can and should artists be formed completely autonomously, outside any tradition? Must the inner Self of the artist always oppose schools? Can an artist’s service to an idea (political, religious, ethical) that is fundamental to a people, a country, or a large community only be false?

In general, Trotskyists, as well as other “Social Justice Warriors” on whom the CCF relied, were characterized by a kind of tearing pathos, appealing to conscience and inner truth, and teaching in the name of freedom and non-conformism. This rhetoric, along with the utmost intolerance for people of different views, was inherited by their later followers, such as today’s apologists for tolerance or exporters of Western democracy.

Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera and André Breton in Mexico. 1938

But back to the ideology of the absence of ideologies. The idea of opposing freedom and ideology was constantly discussed at seminars and conferences of the CCF, as well as in the journals it published. It was the basis for the characteristic outward posture of many of their social commentary: the posture of the calm investigation of “totalitarianism” by scholars who were “above” the subject they were studying. It was also the basis of the CCF’s activity in organizing exhibitions and festivals that glorified art that is free of all “dogmas”. Furthermore, it was also the basis for the anti-communist consensus of American and European intellectuals.

A book by the American sociologist and author Daniel Bell, a prominent member of the CCF, was entitled The End of Ideologies (first edition, 1960). There, Bell spoke of the exhaustion of ideologies because of, on the one hand, the horrors of fascism and Stalin’s Soviet Union (stacked, of course, in one deck, with the inescapable mention of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), and, on the other, the transformation of capitalist countries into “welfare states” where workers would have no reason to be dissatisfied with their living conditions.

In Bell’s view, ideologies are essentially secular religions, fueled by passion. They no longer have a place in a cooling Western society that will be governed in an increasingly technocratic way. New ideologies will emerge in developing countries, in Africa, in Asia, but they will become parochial, devoid of 20th century European universalism. For Bell, these ideologies will emphasize only industrialization, modernization and local nationalisms. The only real value remains freedom — freedom of speech, of expression and of thought. The passion of Western talented youth will find an outlet in university careers, technology, and self-expression through art, though it will inevitably fade away. Note how it comes close to Fukuyama’s “end of history”.

It is important to highlight that such ideological configuration of the anti-communist agenda was not a sole option. It was the result of an internal contest. From 1950 to 1957, the main anti-communist force in the United States was Senator McCarthy and his associates. The CCF and the CIA behind it were in opposition to the conservative and repressive McCarthyism and other conservative forces as well. In 1954 the CCF even sponsored the publication of a book, McCarthy and the Communists, denouncing McCarthyism.

The CIA and the CCF pursued a fundamentally different agenda, which eventually prevailed. It was a bet on the Non-Communist Left. The CIA found that they possessed the most effective destructive potential. As Thomas Braden, the head of the CIA’s International Organizations Division (IOD), wrote: “In much of Europe in the 1950s, socialists, people who called themselves “left” – the very people whom many Americans thought no better than Communists – were the only people who gave a damn about fighting Communism.” The subversion of the labor unions by Braden’s department was carried out through people of the same left-wing, but anti-communist profile.

The formation of the IOD was authorized by the National Security Council Directive No. 68 (NSC-68), issued in March 1950, which was the major secret ideological directive of the early Cold War period. According to it, the basis of the main conflict of the new era was the conflict between the ideas of slavery and freedom, embodied respectively by the “grim oligarchy of the Kremlin” and “the marvelous diversity, deep tolerance and lawfulness of the free society” of the United States.

The existence and persistence of the idea of freedom is a permanent and continuous threat to the foundation of the slave society; and it therefore regards as intolerable the long continued existence of freedom in the world,” the document asserted. Direct military confrontation, with nuclear weapons on both sides, was deemed undesirable. The “practical and ideological considerations therefore both impel us to the conclusion that we have no choice but to demonstrate the superiority of the idea of freedom by its constructive application” — the directive stated.

Reading NSC-68, one can understand a lot about the history of American politics. It already speaks of the protection of “minorities” (not yet defined, but this is 1950!) and of the need “to foster a fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet system” with reliance “to a maximum extent ” on “the internal forces in Soviet society.”

As the American historian Giles Scott-Smith notes, NSC-68 formalized a strategy “to influence civil society towards recognising the natural moral and rational supremacy” of the “free society”. The main channel for such persuasion was a network of non-governmental civic organizations uniting the intellectual elite.

A direct participant in those events, Radio Liberty host George Urban, spoke of the ‘privatization’ of the Cold War, with certain civil institutions being funded with state money but “in the hands of semi-private agencies only loosely or nominally controlled by Western governments.” Note that today’s human rights and other NGOs are a direct continuation of this policy.

John Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger. 1961

One of the most influential intellectuals of the late 1940s who largely determined the implementation of NSC-68 through left-liberal anti-Soviet figures was Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who published The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom in 1949. He had extensive connections within the political elite and was closely involved with Allen Dulles. At the same time, he was an active member of the CCF, one of the few who knew from the beginning about the CIA’s role in its creation. Schlesinger argued that liberalism was the “vital center” in a world threatened by left and right totalitarianisms. In fact, the CCF was conceived as a bulwark of this “vital center” and as an intellectual bridge between America and Europe, providing a common ground for the elites.

The aforementioned J. Scott-Smith notes that “The CCF was … the cultural counterpart to NATO, such that each national intelligentsia must recognise their membership of a wider group of Western intellectuals who had the same interests and values to defend.

The liberal generosity of Schlesinger (and later of the CCF as a whole) went so far as to preach tolerance of opinions dangerous to free society, “even when their eventual tendency, should they win out by democratic methods, would be to extinguish freedom.” Only such an opinion “which results in the immediate and violent obliteration of the conditions of subsequent free discussion” is to be rejected. But would tolerating internal opposing opinions and conflicts, after all, lead to a weakening of the system? In response, Schlesinger suggested combining the acceptance of conflict “with a determination to create a social framework where conflict issues, not in excessive anxiety, but in creativity.”

Thus, “freedom” was thought to be a prerequisite for genuine creativity and culture to flourish. This was the credo of the entire CCF. But does it correspond to reality? Even the case of the Western culture of the ‘50s and ‘60s remains debatable from this standpoint.

Whereas, the history of the past thirty years leaves no doubt as to where the triumph of “freedom” led after the collapse of the Soviet Union, both in Russia and in the West.

 (To be continued)


Source (for copy):

This is a translation of the article by C. Komov, I. Lobanov, V. Kanunnikov, T. Siewert published in The Essence of Time newspaper, issue 440 on July 29, 2021

Translation by: J. Zika, A. Simachkov, et. al.

Links to previous chapters are available here: Part I