“We hold that the theory and practice of the totalitarian state are the greatest challenge which man has been called on to meet in the course of civilized history.”
—Point 11 of the “Manifesto of the Congress for Cultural Freedom,”
Berlin, June 1950, drafted and presented by Arthur Koestler
In a life that stretched from 1911 to 2004, the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz experienced the twin traumas of Poland’s 20th century: first Nazi occupation, then communist dictatorship. A man of the democratic left, he was never enamored with Stalin and the Stalinists, yet in the aftermath of World War II he became a diplomat of the Polish People’s Republic and agreed to represent Stalin’s puppet regime as a cultural attaché at the embassy in Washington, DC, in the late 1940s.
Increasingly disenchanted with establishment of a police state in his country and its totalitarian controls over intellectual life, Milosz decided to defect while in France in 1951. His wife and two sons were at that moment in Washington, DC. Thus began a long separation between the poet and his closest relatives.
In France, Milosz joined the anti-totalitarian circle around the monthly magazine Kultura, led by Jerzy Giedroyc (1906-2000). This was a logical choice for someone who had lived through both the Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianisms—Kultura was engaged in the defense of liberal institutions, political pluralism, and resistance to any attempts to stifle artistic creativity. At this point Milosz became involved in the activities of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the organization that came into being in 1950, with some initial unacknowledged assistance and funding from the CIA, as a platform for debates about democracy and the threats to liberal values.
The Congress was founded by a circle of intellectuals and activists who, having nourished leftist leanings in the 1930s and a fascination with communism, realized that Stalin’s regime had committed countless crimes against humanity. Its founders and members were disenchanted ex-communists who understood the importance of ideology and the dangers of Stalinism. Among its luminaries we find Arthur Koestler, Manes Sperber, Margarete Buber-Neumann, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Sidney Hook, to mention just a few prominent figures of the non-communist left. The Congress took place under the patronage of Bertrand Russell, Benedetto Croce, John Dewey, Karl Jaspers, and Jacques Maritain.
Milosz became one of the keenest contributors to their activities, co-organizing meetings, symposia, and conferences. Years later, Milosz reminisced: “It was the sole counterweight to the propaganda on which the Soviets expended astronomical sums.” While critical of McCarthyism and political hysteria in America, the Congress published high-quality journals in major languages and confronted the well-organized propaganda of anti-Americanism in the West.
In the intensely polarized Cold War political arena, divided between communism and anti-communism, these small groups of intellectuals who sought a “third option” were unquestionably close to Milosz and played a key role in the writer’s life. When he found himself in France, he was labeled a deserter by the Stalinists and a traitor by the majority of Polish émigrés, who were not willing to gloss over what they denounced as his collaboration with the Stalinist regime. The Kultura intellectual family stood by Milosz in those vexing moments.
He started to contribute to the Congress’s publications, primarily, the French journal Preuves. At this time, in addition to writing poetry and essays, Milosz started to work on a book about intellectual abdication in the face of Marxism-Leninism. This project resulted in one of the most important anti-totalitarian texts of the Cold War period: The Captive Mind. It was in the early 1950s that Milosz became the target of venomous campaigns organized by Polish ultra-nationalist émigrés who lobbied against him being able to re-enter the United States in order to reunite with his family. Some of the American personalities involved with the Congress for Cultural Freedom did their utmost to help him and intervene with the Department of State. They testified to Milosz’s moral integrity and intellectual honor. Among these, two of the most prominent advocates were political philosophers Sydney Hook (1902-1989) and James Burnham (1905-1987).
In the Hoover Institution’s archives, one of the authors of this article discovered in July 2017 a revealing document: a letter from Milosz to Burnham in the early 1970s. In it, Milosz mentions his recent conversation with a Polish visitor, who might plausibly have been Polish émigré poet Aleksander Wat (1900-67), whom Czeslaw Milosz interviewed at length at Berkeley. The result of this collaboration was Wat’s book My Century.
Be this as it may, the significance of the letter strikes us both—politically, philosophically, and morally. Politically, Czeslaw Milosz admits the value of Burnham’s pessimistic vision put forward in the 1964 book The Suicide of the West. Philosophically, Milosz takes issue and expresses deep worries regarding the leftist radicalism of the students’ counterculture as well as the conservatism of the Polish Roman Catholic Church. In other words, he remains skeptical of ideological certainties, be they of the left or the right. Morally, the letter is a warning and a cri de coeur regarding what he sees as civilizational decline in the West.
Below is the text of the letter Milosz addressed to Burnham, in the Burnham Collection at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution:
Twenty years ago we met in Maisons-Laffitte at “ Kultura’s” and during all those years I have been a faithful contributor to “Giedroyc’s” monthly. Giedroyć always speaks of you in warmest terms. This letter has a simple explanation: Berkeley + “The Suicide of the West” which, I am ashamed to confess, I read only recently.
I have been professor here for 10 years. As you may guess, to be an observer of Berkeley frolics is not a very edifying experience.
Your diagnosis has been confirmed by the whole “Movement” of the young generation. I agree with you on the “transfers” of guil—though never probably one could see such a display as today—perhaps only among the Russian intelligentsia—of the second half of the 19th century. A collection of essays on the Russian revolution, De Profundis, written by a team of Russian thinkers in 1918 and published a few years ago (in Russian) brings a diagnosis similar to yours.
My esteem for your work does not mean, however, I could become an American conservative. Of course I pay trust to the lines from the “Fairy Queen” may not come true—we have but one civilization and when it succumbs, nothing will be left. But let us consider a basic lack of communication. A visitor from Poland said to me, “what I found here is an enormous spiritual Munich.” The trouble is such a man could not find a common language with American conservatives either—perhaps with one or two exceptions. My loyalty towards those who represent in Poland the only possible core of resistance traces a line between my attitudes and the American conservative mind. “Conservatism” means of course something different here but the fact is conservative habits become, in the Soviet empire, an instrument of the rulers (tradition exploited for the sake of national communism).
What is the most serious today, it seems to me, is madness within the Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic church of which I am a member. This applies to the west—in Poland the Church is just a conservative force.
You don’t mind, I hope, these few words after 20 years.
To conclude: This letter is a synthesis of the poet’s deep worries regarding the direction of Western civilization. Milosz remained, until the end of his life, a skeptical humanist and a critic of all forms of ideological certainties. It sheds light on Milosz’s concerns about the role of religious institutions, in Poland and elsewhere. In today’s climate, when multiple strains of extremism—whether nationalist, clerical, or populist—have returned with a vengeance, Milosz’s warning is more timely than ever.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the publication date of The Suicide of the West as 1948. The piece has also been updated to acknowledge the CIA’s role in funding the Congress for Cultural Freedom.