Today, it is said, we live in a time of unprecedented crisis. Autocracy is resurgent, territorially expansionist, and ideologically assertive, while the liberal democratic West appears anxious, timid, divided, and riddled with illiberal forces that often openly align with the West’s authoritarian detractors. It was in similar but arguably more challenging circumstances 70 years ago this month that more than 200 leading intellectuals from Europe and North America gathered in Berlin’s Tatiana Palace to launch a counter-offensive to the Soviet Union’s increasingly aggressive efforts to challenge and discredit Western liberal values. The resulting Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) would play a seminal role in the ideological Cold War, initially as a vehicle for ideological “containment”—a politico-cultural counterpart to the Marshall Plan—and later as the central protagonist in a cross-border Kulturkampf that helped shape the values and worldviews of a postwar generation.
The circumstances for such a gathering were less than auspicious. News of North Korea’s invasion of the South broke as delegates gathered in a city that had only just emerged from a Soviet blockade. Berlin was surrounded by the Red Army, which had occupied half of Europe to impose a string of satellite states, stifling civil society and silencing dissent. Newly-installed Communist regimes hanged dozens of political rivals following show trials in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. The latter had recently fallen prey to a Communist coup in which its heroic Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, was murdered. The Soviet cultural commissar Andrei Zhdanov was imposing “socialist realist” conformity, which entailed the persecution of such literary giants as the poet Anna Akhmatova and the dispatch of dozens of Jewish writers to the Gulag, where they joined tens of thousands of former Red Army troops, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Despite the genuine threat to attendees’ physical safety (the Soviets had kidnapped and “disappeared” several critics from Berlin’s Western sector), the event attracted such luminaries as A. J. Ayer, James Burnham, Herbert Read, H. R. Trevor-Roper, Sidney Hook, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Carlo Schmid, as well as five honorary presidents – the eminent philosophers Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, John Dewey, Benedetto Croce, and Jacques Maritain. Delegates also included “the cream of the anti-Stalinist left,” such as Arthur Koestler and Ignazio Silone, some of whom had been imprisoned in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, or Falangist Spain. Indeed, one of the forum’s organizers, Margarete Buber-Neumann, had been incarcerated by both Hitler and Stalin.
The conference was held in the aftermath of two extraordinarily successful Soviet engineered conferences in New York and Paris, designed to contrast Western “warmongering” with Communist desires for peace, at the very time Berlin was under a Kremlin blockade. These were the opening salvoes of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform), launched by Joseph Stalin in late 1947 as a successor to the Communist International.
The New York event, held at the Waldorf-Astoria Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, boasted a line-up of cultural superstars, including Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, and Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and a young Norman Mailer. They heard composer Aaron Copeland declare that “the present policies of the American Government will lead inevitably to a third world war,” a view echoed in his Russian counterpart Dmitri Shostakovich’s call for delegates to unite against “a small clique of hatemongers,” a new breed of “Fascists’” seeking global hegemony.
Some ideas possess “the power to strike a whole generation blind,” according to Russian liberal Alexander Herzen, and it is hard to imagine the appeal of Communism and the prevalence of pro-Soviet sentiment at the time. Yet large swathes of elite opinion-formers and decision-makers remained philo-Communist or at least neutralist, as reflected in renowned French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s insistence that to be anti-Communist was to be “a rat.”
By the start of the Cold War in 1947, the Soviets had more than a quarter century head start in conducting a largely unreciprocated ideological offensive against the West. Lenin himself had dispatched Comintern official Willi Münzenberg to undermine “bourgeois democracy” from within, which he did with considerable success, not least by forming popular fronts (Münzenberg privately called them “innocents clubs”) and mobilizing fellow-traveling “useful idiots” throughout civil society, from European labor unions to Hollywood studios. As a result, the Soviet Union and its Communist allies enjoyed considerable moral authority and political legitimacy, particularly among public intellectuals, who played an outsized role in controlling the climate of ideas.
In his celebrated 1950 National Security Council Paper NSC–68, George Kennan argued that the United States should counter the Soviets by promoting freedom, “the most contagious idea in history,” and “demonstrate the superiority of the idea of freedom by its constructive application” by working with non-state actors, including business, professional, civil, labor, and youth groups. But “premature anti-Communist” activists like Melvin J. Lasky, a 29-year-old American-born founding editor of the German publication Der Monat, didn’t wait for Western governments to get their act together. Lasky engaged renowned philosopher Sidney Hook and former Comintern apparatchiks Ruth Fischer and Franz Borkenau to plan the launch of a Democratic International, or Deminform, initially conceived by George Orwell, by “giving the Politburo hell right at the gate of their own hell” with a huge anti-Communist demonstration in West Berlin.
The CCF’s founding Berlin Congress was “the first major offensive against Soviet propagandists” featuring “literary and scientific personages of international repute,” the New York Times reported. At the opening session, before an audience of thousands, the Berlin Philharmonic played Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Mayor Ernst Reuter asked the assembled to stand in silence to commemorate those who had died fighting for freedom and in concentration camps, as well as those still languishing in the Gulag.
Further congresses would address such issues as the end of ideology and economic planning, but the most influential role of the CCF was in the creation of a network of highbrow journals, including Encounter (Britain/US), Tempo Presente (Italy), Quest (India), Preuves (France), Der Monat (Germany), Quadrant (Australia), Cuardenos (Spain), Forum (Austria), and Hiwar (Lebanon).
Sidney Hook told delegates, “The fundamental distinction of our time must be drawn . . . not in terms of a free market in goods or a closed market but only in terms of a free market of ideas.” But it was Koestler who took center stage at the closing rally to present the Congress’s Freedom Manifesto, co-authored with his former Comintern colleague Manes Sperber, before 15,000 receptive Berliners. “Friends, freedom has seized the offensive!” he declared. The fundamental division in postwar politics was no longer between capitalism and socialism but between “total tyranny [and] relative freedom.”
In totalitarian states restrictions on freedom are no longer intended . . . as sacrifices imposed on the people, but are . . . represented as triumphs of progress and achievements of a superior civilization,” the manifesto proclaimed, insisting that “no political philosophy or economic theory . . . no race, nation, class, or religion can claim the sole right to represent the idea of freedom.
But what strategy would most effectively and sustainably advance that freedom?
To Koestler, the answer was militant, unrelenting anti-Communism, advocating the “rollback” or overthrow of Soviet regimes, a stance backed by U.S.-based hardliners Hook, former Trotskyist James Burnham, and labor official Irving Brown. On the contrary, the Italian socialist Ignazio Silone insisted, a more nuanced, cultural approach to winning hearts and minds, based on social and political reformism, was more likely to resonate with Europe’s intellectuals and sap Communism’s moral appeal. This incremental pragmatism won the day, securing the support of U.S. attendees John Dewey, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and Lasky; France’s Raymond Aron and Francois Mauriac; and the Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont.
The CCF’s principal purpose was “to rally their fellows against totalitarianism and to stand as a symbol of free inquiry and common discourse for intellectuals in all countries,” said American sociologist Daniel Bell. It is “simpleminded” to project the Congress as merely anti-Communist, he added, citing its support for the dissident Communist writers of Hungary’s Petofi circle, a catalyst of the 1956 Revolution. Hearts and minds would not be won by a purely negative anti-Communism, but by a compelling alternative vision of the good society. By launching a “radical democratic political offensive,” said Lasky, the Congress would draw on the best of Western civilization to prompt a cultural renaissance from the rubble and destitution of post-war Europe.
The Congress was a central protagonist in the battle of ideas at a critical time in world history through its network of journals across Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and a series of agenda-setting international conferences. It also smuggled books and periodicals to dissidents and libraries in Eastern Europe, matched Western publishers with censored Soviet bloc intellectuals, campaigned against apartheid (before it was in vogue) and protested political persecution in the right-wing regimes of Argentina, Portugal, and Spain. In essence, the Congress changed the terms of debate from the Communist narratives of “peace-loving progressives vs. imperialist warmongers,” or “socialist planning vs. unregulated capitalism” to one of “totalitarianism vs. freedom.” The architects of the Congress “understood the importance of ideology, especially in Europe,” Czeslaw Milosz, author of the classic The Captive Mind, observed. “Immediately after the war no one else was concerned about Communism’s subjugation of European minds. . . . it was the sole counterweight to the propaganda on which the Soviets expended astronomical sums.”
While it is difficult to gauge the CCF’s impact on the appeal of Communist ideology, as opposed to the effect of historical events like the East German workers’ revolts of 1953 or the Polish and Hungarian uprisings in 1956, some historians have called it a resounding success.
“Seldom in modern history has an organization been vindicated by subsequent events as fully as the Congress for Cultural Freedom,” observed the historian Walter Laqueur. According to Sarah Harris, author of an authoritative study of the CCF, by the 1960s “in other realms—the missile race, economic productivity, and the respective spheres of influence—the Cold War remained intractable. But to the intellectuals associated with the Congress, the war of ideas seemed to have been won. Communism had failed to colonize intellectual life.” By the end of the CCF’s run, “the propaganda of the Soviet Union and its fellow-travelers was no longer credible,” wrote CCF historian Peter Coleman.
George Kennan was equally impressed. “I can think of no other group of people who have done more to hold our world together in these last years,” he wrote to the CCF’s Nicolas Nabokov in 1959. “In this country [the United States] in particular, few will ever understand the dimensions and significance of your accomplishment.”
Controversy erupted in 1966 amid revelations that the Central Intelligence Agency had provided most of the Congress’s funding. But those who defend the Congress and other Agency-funded entities such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty argue that the CCF’s opaque funding arrangements were justified, if not necessitated, by the nature of its adversaries and the context of the times. The Congress was launched with a budget of $50,000 at a time when the Kremlin was investing $250 million a year in propaganda efforts, according to Soviet Deputy Premier Georgy Malenkov. The latter amount expanded dramatically over the next decade, so that by the mid-1960s, the Kremlin was coordinating 300-400 “active measures” annually.
Stalin was destabilizing France and Italy and bankrolling pro-Soviet opinion leaders throughout the West. As Josef Joffe explained:
What was Washington supposed to do? Write letters to the editor? In an all-out war, the ways of the totalitarians must at least partly condition the strategies of the democrats. The C.I.A. could have committed (and surely did commit) worse sins than sponsoring music, magazines, and chatfests.
In the early years of the Cold War, it was far from clear that totalitarianism would fail, especially in Europe, where Communists and their fellow travelers, lavishly funded by Moscow, still enjoyed considerable legitimacy and leverage, while their democratic rivals lacked Great Power patronage. As Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. noted:
During the last days of Stalinism, before the Marshall Plan had restored the economic energy and moral confidence of Western Europe, the non-Communist trade-union movements and the non-Communist intellectuals were under the most severe, unscrupulous, and unrelenting pressure. For the United States government to have stood self-righteously aside at this point would have seemed to me far more shameful than to do what, in fact, it did—which was working through intermediaries to provide some of these groups subsidies to help them do better what they were doing anyway. [emphasis added]
Most other U.S. government actors and institutions would have balked at the notion of aiding a group of independent-minded ex-Communists and other intellectuals on the non-Communist left. The prevailing McCarthyist political climate did not lend itself to subtle nuances between social democrats and Communists, even if the former were demonstrably the best-placed, self-motivated, and most-committed to combatting communism. A case in point: in 1950, when the State Department denied a visa to the distinguished political scientist and CCF associate Michael Polanyi to teach at the University of Chicago because he had belonged to a pro-Soviet cultural group during the war, the Agency managed to overrule the veto.
Critics contend that the funding compromised the CCF’s autonomy and integrity, allowing Washington officials to set the agenda and manipulate a generation of unwitting intellectuals. Yet many found the idea risible that such intellectual heavyweights as Hook, Koestler, and Isaiah Berlin, as well as the CCF’s politically diverse range of journals, could be duped and manipulated. Indeed, government officials “found it impossible to control the intellectuals of the CCF in a dozen capitals,” notes Laqueur. “In fact, they did not seriously try to do so. Instructions were seldom issued, and on the few occasions when an attempt was made in that direction, it was almost always ignored.”
As CCF coordinator Michael Josselson later observed, the Congress was congenitally incapable of maintaining a rigid political line because it was “such a heterogeneous group—with Catholics and atheists, socialists and conservatives.” The controversy about covert funding “was quite unwarranted,” Kennan wrote to the Ford Foundation’s Shepherd Stone. “And the Congress would itself have been remiss if it had failed to take money which came to it from good intent and wholly without strings or conditions.”
That said, there is clearly a salutary lesson of the covert funding imbroglio implicit in Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous insistence that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Open societies need to operate in such a way as to expose government actions to the judgment of a fully informed citizenry. Government agencies and civil society actors alike must follow a path of rigorous transparency, whether operating domestically or internationally, unlike the autocrats and other illiberal actors who readily provide clandestine financial and other support to political forces beyond their borders for their own furtive purposes. It is imperative that independent democratic actors reaffirm that surreptitious subsidies or any other underhanded operations are not only alien and unwelcome, but manifestly counterproductive to the struggle to defend the norms and values underpinning liberal democracy.
Today, liberal democracy is once again under threat, as tyrants from Beijing to Syria, from Moscow to Iran, flex their geopolitical muscles while victimizing their own people, and exploit the West’s reluctance to celebrate its fundamental principles. Three years ago, some of the world’s leading activists and thinkers signed the Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal, which states, “These [democratic] principles are being challenged today not only by apologists for illiberalism and xenophobia, but also by relativist intellectuals who deny that any form of government can be defended as superior.”
We live at a time when it is precisely in the “moral and cognitive domains” that conflicts are won or lost, the strategist Lawrence Freedman contends, and when Yeats’s oft-quoted poetic prophecy seems to have once again come true: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Historical analogies are rarely precise enough to offer obvious lessons, let alone political prescriptions. Yet we would do well to reflect on the example of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and affirm Koestler’s call for freedom to take the offensive and for democracy advocates to re-engage in the contest of ideas.