Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and LettersThe Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.
—Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

This 1999 book by British journalist Saunders is the classic account of the CIA’s semi-secret mid-20th-century sponsorship of cultural organizations, literary and political journals, artistic movements, and related ventures (including films and political campaigns) throughout the world to combat the influence of communism.

Taking the form of a narrative history, The Cultural Cold War focuses on three men who were the relays between seemingly independent artists and intellectuals and the American (as well as British) intelligence services.

Saunders’s stars are Melvin Lasky, a Bronx-born and City-College-educated militant anti-communist who became a prominent editor in Germany after World War II; Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to the more famous novelist Vladimir, a White Russian émigré and flamboyant composer who would go on to be at the center of the artists and writers knowingly or unknowingly recruited to fight communism; and Michael Josselson, descended from an Estonian Jewish family exiled after the Russian Revolution, who became an American citizen and then an intelligence and psychological warfare expert  overseeing the Agency’s domination of arts and letters.

This trio’s travails are the emotional spine of the book, and Saunders treats them with sympathy, especially Josselson, whom she seems to regard as a tragic figure, a man of cultivation and passion caught in world-historical circumstances well beyond his control. At times, I felt I was reading a sequel to Gravity’s Rainbow, another vast and complex story about humanists compromised by the domineering services to which the masters of war inevitably wish to put humanism.

While The Cultural Cold War is a dispassionate book with a minimum of editorializing, Saunders seems to reserve most of her judgment not for the intelligence officers, but for the artists and intellectuals themselves. They either cynically or naively accepted CIA money laundered through philanthropic foundations (many of which were simply fronts, little more than mail drops for the transfer of funds) even as they nevertheless congratulated themselves for being on the side of a free society where the government did not interfere with cultural life.

The CIA was instituted in 1947, an outgrowth of the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and it became a tentacular and autonomous bureaucracy operating unaccountably worldwide. Its motivation in waging a cultural Cold War was to recruit a “non-communist left.” Understanding the appeal of dissidence to artists and thinkers, and understanding too the pre-war attractions of communism during the 1930s, the CIA grasped that keeping rebellious intellectuals in the fold of liberalism would be crucial to ensure the success of “the American century.”

To that end, they funded a European organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the famous British liberal literary journal Encounter (edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol), and art and music exhibitions meant to emphasize the progressive side of American culture to European audiences skeptical that America had a culture at all. Exemplary here are the CIA’s covert promotion of Abstract Expressionist painting as an individualist and apolitical antidote to socialist realism and of jazz and other African-American arts as a riposte to the Soviet Union’s charges of American hypocrisy in complaining about communism’s civil unfreedom.

Saunders emphasizes that the CIA really did represent the liberal side of the internal American debate over how to handle the Cold War, referring to “many romantic myths about the CIA as an extension of the American liberal literary tradition.” The men she writes about were generally horrified by the know-nothing populism of Joseph McCarthy, while a number of presidents, including Truman and Johnson (but excluding the suave would-be Pericles Kennedy), resented intellectuals, distrusted modernist art, and would have preferred a more populist cultural ethos of God and country.

The American intelligence service, she notes, was staffed by the country’s traditional Anglo-Protestant elite, an educated class who felt the responsibility of national stewardship: “Many of them hailed from a concentration in Washington, D.C., of a hundred or so wealthy families…who stood for the preservation of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian values that had guided their ancestors.” Yet their waging of the Cold War would result, ironically, in that elite’s and those values’ cultural dispossession.

Part of this book’s sly comedy comes in the intelligence elite’s sometimes uncomprehending interaction with the “new class,” primarily Jewish intellectuals, but in the background there is also the emergence of Catholic writers and black artists and postcolonial talents, all of whom the CIA recruited as a bludgeon against communism. If the literary-sociological headline of midcentury American writing is the rise of Jewish, Catholic, and African-American authors to unprecedented prominence, Saunders implies that this was in a way a project of the WASP elite, a move in the Great Game against Russian communism and for western values.

But for Saunders, this new class, particularly the New York Intellectuals, did not acquit itself well, especially those who would go on to fill the ranks of the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol seems more or less to be the book’s villain. He represents for Saunders a type of pseudo-thinker who possesses an essentially militarized mind, a man who cannot conceive of intellectual life outside of polarizing combat and enemies to slay. Saunders tends to portray Sidney Hook, Diana Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler in the same unflattering light.

Quoted throughout the book as moral authorities, by contrast, are more independent-minded figures devoted to a nuanced conception of the literary and political life: Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein.

Saunders tentatively concludes that when American intellectuals, even those who had gone along with the cultural Cold War, turned against Johnson over Vietnam, he ordered the plug to be pulled on the operation, judging that “‘liberals, intellectuals, Communists—they’re all the same.'” The CIA’s cultural activities were exposed in a California-based radical magazine called Ramparts, and later reported in the New York Times. But Saunders implies that the Agency could probably have squashed Ramparts‘s reporting or at least effectively replied to it. But they did not; they allowed their own exposure, perhaps out of a sense that the cultural Cold War had run its course. If this is true, it makes the radical magazine’s exposure of liberal intellectuals’ collaboration with the CIA itself an instrument of the Agency’s will, a familiar hall-of-mirrors effect from spy thrillers: is there anything the CIA doesn’t control?

This problem of mirroring is the thesis, ultimately, of Saunders’s book. She writes of the irony in combatting totalitarianism by exercising (or participating in) in the state’s total control over intellectual and artistic life. American and British writers and artists, in trying to fight the Soviet Union, became far too much its counterpart. This comes out, for instance, in passages where Saunders records how the Agency attempted to quash art that reflected too negatively on the U.S., recalling nothing so much as the strictures of socialist realism:

Echoing Sidney Hook’s complaints of 1949 that Southern writers reinforced negative perceptions of America, with their “novels of social protest and revolt” and “American degeneracy and inanity,” the American Committee now resolved to “steer clear of incestuous Southerners. Their work gives an exceedingly partial and psychologically colored account of our manners and morals.” […] Sales of books by Caldwell, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Richard Wright…slumped in this period.

Near the conclusion of the book, Saunders suggests that collaboration with state power, even in an ostensibly good political cause, is an abdication of the intellectual’s responsibility to tell the truth:

[E]thics were subject to politics. They confused their role, pursuing their aims by acting on people’s states of mind, choosing to slant things one way rather than another in the hope of achieving a particular result. That should have been the job of politicians. The task of the intellectual should have been to expose the politician’s economy with the truth, his parsimonious distribution of fact, his defense of the status quo.

Furthermore, in a preface to the 2013 edition, Saunders offers an argument against any excessive political conviction, any use of propaganda:

My sympathies are with Voltaire, who argued that anyone who is certain ought to be certified. I believe that Milan Kundera’s “wisdom of uncertainty” is a touchstone for intellectual inquiry. The Cultural Cold War could be described as a polemic against conviction (which can be distinguished from faith or belief or values) and the strategies used to mobilize one conviction against another. In the highly politicized context of the cultural cold war, this refusal to take sides was designated, pejoratively, as relativism or neutralism. It was not a position or sensibility tolerated by either side—both the Soviet Union and the United States were committed to undermining the case for neutralism, and in the theater of operations which is the focus of this book, Western Europe, that campaign devolved from very similar tactics.

The Cultural Cold War, then, argues for a rather unfashionable thesis: the autonomy of art and intellect from politics. The authority of artists and intellectuals to scrutinize and criticize their societies is based on their disinterested distance from its governing institutions. This distance is a modern phenomenon and is ever in danger of being compromised. The idea that artists do not exist to serve the church, the state, or any other collective or constituency hardly existed before the 19th century, though there are hints of it in Greek literature’s famous moments of even-handedness (The Persians, for instance) or in Shakespeare’s constitutive ambiguities.

Materially, the distance of intellectuals from power can rarely be total, especially today when so many of us are gathered under the aegis of the university. (I myself am paid in part with taxpayer funds.) Nevertheless, we give up this ideal of artistic and intellectual independence, the true meaning of “cultural freedom” betrayed in practice by the Cold Warriors, at the risk of relinquishing whatever social power we still have.

Saunders’s old-fashioned idealism, like the blurbs on the back of the book from Edward Said and Lewis Lapham, wistfully calls to mind an  “ideological formation” (to use the comrades’ jargon) that scarcely exists in this country any longer, a non-communist left worth supporting—non-communist not because it represents Cold War managerial liberalism (the “snivelling, mealy-mouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychiatrists and union officials” Saunders quotes William S. Burroughs as denouncing) but because its exponents were civil and cultural libertarians.

And what of today? What intellectual and artistic organs are being moved as we speak by the hidden hand of the deep state? I suppose we all have our suspicions, and “none” would be an absurdly naive answer. But who knows for sure? I imagine we’ll learn more about what is really going on right now in about 30-50 years. In the meantime, to get an idea of how paranoid you should be, you should read The Cultural Cold War.


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Georg Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism

The Meaning of Contemporary RealismThe Meaning of Contemporary Realism by Georg Lukács

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have always been attracted to the idea that art was more than about taste. Tabooed by postmodernism, which understands art and its appreciation to be wholly contingent social constructs serving various and sundry vested interests, this intuition that art could be not merely pleasing or instrumental but actually true has the allure of the illicit. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth writes contemptuously of

those who will converse with us as gravely about a taste for Poetry, as they express it, as if it were a thing as indifferent as a taste for rope-dancing, or Frontiniac or Sherry. Aristotle, I have been told, has said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives competence and confidence to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature.

The aesthetic is often attacked in the name of morality, but “morality,” in its association with moeurs and mores—local, relative, and even provincial customs—is just another way of saying “taste.” Victorian morality proscribed unpunished adultery; ours proscribes unpunished racism. Morality’s doubles in today’s critical discourse are compassion or empathy, but these are less reliable even than taste, as they are little better than moods—capricious, evanescent, blown hither and yon by every propagandist with a tearjerking photo or a few resonant phrases. Ethics and politics are higher than morals, which is to say also that principle is superior to compassion. One point of aesthetics, so Wordsworth implies above, is to bring principle (or truth) alive in the heart through passion. If art’s passionate incarnation of truth is made subject to the merely moral, is put to the test of making us feel better about each other or—what is actually being asked for in most moralistic criticism today—feel pity for our inferiors, then its actual service in bringing our human emotion into accord with the truth will be obviated. To make art about morality, no less than making it about taste, is to cleave truth from passion.

Can I really believe this? I would have to believe in some prior security for truth—God is the most popular—to believe that art could body forth reality and not someone’s or some group’s self-serving notion of what reality is. In other words, I find the above as untenable and intolerable as you do, ridden with metaphysics and implicitly imperial. But I am, as I said, attracted to it. It has for me the forbidden, almost erotic glow exhibited by many forbidden ideas, often for no better reason than because they are forbidden, and sometimes rightly so. This is the basis of my long dalliance with the literary criticism of Georg Lukács, which I was reminded of when I added the early Lukács to my personal canon; but it was not necessarily only the early Lukács that exerted a certain fascination for me. My joke in graduate school was, “Lukács is my Heidegger.” In other words, while all the other theory boys were worrying over their affinity for the Nazi philosopher, I—who found and find Heidegger disagreeable-to-incomprehensible, his vatic abstractions and woodland divagations totally at odds with my urban, novelistic sensibility—was worrying over my affinity for the Stalinist critic.

One of the ironies of the last century is that the defense of art as truth—which will scan to most younger western readers today as a conservative or reactionary position—was most ardently upheld by Marxist critics, none more than Lukács in his later work, after he had abandoned the revolutionary romanticism of his early criticism and philosophy. Without the “right-wing anti-capitalism” (Lukács’s own later term of self-reproach) of The Theory of the Novel and perhaps even History and Class Consciousness, the Western Marxism of Benjamin and Adorno would not have been possible. But Benjamin’s and Adorno’s negative dialectic, their insistence that wholeness can only be intuited through the inspection of ruins, their identification of culture as both the flower of and the justification for oppression, would be abandoned in the name of progressive and humanist optimism by the older Lukács.

If modernist Marxists like Adorno and Benjamin saw art as the photo negative of truth, the classical Marxist Lukács, in his hatred of modernism, believed art could be the photograph itself—or, to vary the metaphor and allude to the classics, “a mirror up to nature.” Communist criticism in the middle of the twentieth century inherited the traditional aesthetic canons of western civilization; liberal and fascist aesthetics, intersecting at any number of points from Nietzsche and Wilde to Sontag and de Man, were far more revolutionary in their sundering of art and truth.

The Meaning of Contemporary Realism was written in the mid-1950s. The Stalinist era had ended, and Lukács, who had been a Communist loyalist since the 1930s, finally felt free to criticize both Stalin and socialist realism as fatally out of touch with the realities of Soviet life. The purpose of the book is twofold, largely because it is addressed to both Western and Eastern audiences.

For the Westerner, Lukács arraigns literary modernism as, at best, an evasion of history or, at worst, an adjunct of fascism or nuclear war (Lukács argues in this book that the peace movement must take precedence over the struggle of the world proletariat if World War III is to be avoided; this seems to be the main reason for his overture to Western European audiences). Modernist literature, he claims, upholds a pessimistic worldview, promotes a distorted and ahistorical sense of time, champions the morbid and eccentric at the expense of the typical, and makes artistic form—rather than truth or progress—an end in itself. Whether the meaningless subjectivism of Joyce and Faulkner or the nihilistic surrealism of Kafka or Beckett, modernism enervates the historical subject just when he should be readying for historical struggle toward, first, peace, and second, communism. His case to the Eastern audience can be put more shortly: Lukács stresses that socialist realism, with its utopian fantasias of unreal Communist achievement, is no less vitiating to true progressives than is modernism; not unlike Kafka, socialist realism also puts a subjective fantasy in place of reality.

Against these dominant but decadent aesthetics of the Western and Eastern blocs, Lukács champions “critical realism”—the attempt to capture the complexity of real social life through the portrayal of socially typical protagonists engaged in dynamic struggles. That the great critical realists were bourgeois or even aristocratic—his heroes are Balzac, Tolstoy, and Mann—is no obstacle, provided the bourgeois novelist understands that socialism is the future, at least in the sense that it is the logical, even if it will not be the phenomenal, outcome of the class struggle.

Lukács’s twentieth-century canon will look absurd to the contemporary reader—to prefer Mann to Kafka is certainly arguable, but to elevate Sinclair Lewis over Joyce is, ultimately, not. Admirers of Joyce and Kafka will boggle at Lukács’s insensitivity to their political insight; admirers of Balzac, Tolstoy, and Mann will laugh at his inability to recognize their own perversity.

My question, though, is the following: are we as far from Lukács as we might think we are when turning his pages, laden as they are with a largely bygone and rebarbative jargon?

Sontag, in her brisk review of this very book when it was published in the U.S. in the early 1960s, understood the stakes well; to the review she appended this more sweepingly dismissive postscript in Against Interpretation:

What all the culture critics who descend from Hegel and Marx have been unwilling to admit is the notion of art as autonomous (not merely historically interpretable) form. And since the peculiar spirit which animates the modern movements in the arts is based on, precisely, the rediscovery of the power (including the emotional power) of the formal properties of art, these critics are poorly situated to come to sympathetic terms with modern works of art, except through their “content.” Even form is viewed by the historicist critics as a kind of content.

But we have just been informed, as I was saying, that art as autonomous form is an idea that has been abandoned and discredited. Freedom in the liberal sense—the individual’s freedom from organized social interference—is the political premise of apolitical, i.e., autonomous art.

You might say: To scrutinize aesthetic objects as political, to insist that all art is propaganda and that the personal is the political, is unavoidably to advance a totalitarian position. To politicize everything is to designate everything as subject to centralized control. (This is, among other things, what it means to “descend from Hegel and Marx,” as the left does. Reading Lukács, I am fascinated to recognize how many words are unproblematically circulated in liberal discourse today, such as “humanist” and “progressive” and “oppression,” that have their proximate origin in the lexicon of Communist propaganda.)

To this, the political critic will reply that the warrant for this anti-liberal totalization of art is clear enough: liberalism leaves so many unfree, perhaps as the condition of its own possibility, that the freedom it does provide is either a sham or the ethically unjustified enjoyment of an elite class. Lukács defines freedom very differently from the liberal:

‘[F]reedom’ [is] understood here, of course, as conscious acceptance of historical necessity—a necessity which subsumes much that is apparently arbitrary.

It follows logically from this that the purpose of art, for Lukács as for Wordsworth and Aristotle, is not to be free but to provide images of the necessity to which we are subject, so that we may accede to it. On the nature of this necessity, they differed; my point is their shared conception of the purpose of art. This is what it means for art to be about more than taste; it has to be about knowledge or faith or else a certainty of the truth that the facts portend, which makes knowledge and faith indivisible. Call it God or History, it helps you write your plot and tells you who the hero is. That art could have no purpose, no plot, no hero, was once a new idea and is now considered a superseded one. But so far, as I have said above, it has only been superseded—admittedly, at times, supremely intelligently and very movingly—by appeals to moral judgment, itself as arbitrary as autonomous aesthetic criteria.

Am I saying that contemporary political critics should shut their Rorty and open their Lukács? Only for the sake of their intellectual consistency, and not because I want to disseminate Communist ideals. For myself, reading this book was enough to glut my illicit appetite for now. I return to my defense of art’s autonomy, which is either the effect or, more radically, the cause of the individual’s autonomy—even if I too have days where my answer to Lukács’s question, “Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann?” is for the latter. (Was I the only person lured to Marxism by a preference for the classics?) One virtue of individualism, though, is that it always allows you to reply to a forced choice like that not with an answer but with a question of your own: who says I have to choose?


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!