Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four

Paul Flewers hatchet.job at virgin.net
Fri Nov 29 05:46:07 MST 2002


Mike Ballard mentioned Frances Stonor-Saunders' book Who Paid the Piper? in
respect of the way that George Orwell's last two novels were used and
manipulated by Western governments and their intelligence agencies. List
members may be interested in my review of this book.

+++++++++++++++++++++

Frances Stonor-Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold
War, Granta, 1999, £9.99/£20

THANKS to various exposés over the last couple of decades, the baleful role
of the CIA in international affairs has become common knowledge. Although
aspects of the CIA's role in the mobilisation of culture as a key weapon in
the Cold War has been known for some time, this book presents an extensive
and coherent account of both the public and private faces of the CIA's
anti-communist cultural crusade.

Even prior to the formation of the CIA in July 1947, US officials had been
busy trying to reinforce the USA's presence in postwar Europe, and to
counter the Soviet image of it as politically reactionary and culturally
philistine, by organising a wide range of cultural events. The sharpening of
the Cold War led to the increasingly fervent and extensive mobilisation of
Western culture within the general anti-communist drive. CIA cash was used
to set up Der Monat, a monthly magazine aimed at propagating pro-US policies
in German intellectual circles. Anti-communist literature, not least The God
That Failed, was officially promoted. A network of trustworthy European
intellectuals, bringing in conservatives, liberals right-wing social
democrats and former leftists, was assembled.

The CIA's cultural offensive was well under way when it set up its main
weapon in this field, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, in the wake of a
clamorous conference held in Berlin in July 1950. Along with various other
CIA fronts, including the National Committee for a Free Europe, Radio Free
Europe and Forum World Features, and with the generous financial assistance
of the CIA's own funding organisations such as the Farfield Foundation and
existing ones like the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, the
CCF went about its task of organising a pro-Western, anti-communist
atmosphere around the world through sponsoring a wide range of cultural
events, including art exhibitions, musical performances and theatrical
plays, and subsidising an extensive publishing industry. Quite a lot of the
art and music that was plugged was of the most avant garde variety,
including works by Jackson Pollock and Arnold Schoenberg, to mention only
the most famous of them.

Not a few of the key participants in the CIA's cultural Cold War, including
some of the CCF's leading personnel, were renegade left-wingers. Although
Stonor-Saunders does not draw this out, it's worth noting that those from a
Stalinist background merely inverted their Stalin-worship into a pro-Western
Stalinophobia, those from other left-wing currents abstracted any
anti-capitalist sentiments from their hatred of Stalinism, thus leaving them
both as pure and simple anti-communists. As it was, the CCF's operations
closely resembled the Stalinists' mobilisation of cultural figures during
the Popular Front days. The CCF's structure resembled something rigged up by
the Comintern, and there were even faction fights that took forms that would
be very familiar to any left-winger.

The most prominent manifestation of the CCF in Britain was Encounter
magazine, which ran from 1953 to 1990. With its political commentary of
varying quality, inconsequential short stories and forgettable effusions of
sundry poetasters, Encounter was intentionally designed to resemble the
prewar and wartime political-cultural magazines published in Britain. It
played a neat dialectical trick - beneath the same form, the content
differed from them in that its political ethos was steadfastly
anti-communist. The CIA and its satellite bodies spent a great deal of time
and effort influencing the Labour Party, and found a ready audience for
their pro-capitalist ideas on Labour's right wing, and particularly with the
revisionists around Socialist Commentary.

Compared with the Stalinists' Popular Front antics, where the general thrust
of campaigns dutifully followed every gyration of Soviet policies, the CIA
operated with considerably more freedom and subtlety. Whilst it didn't take
much to work out the relationship between an innocently-worded Stalinist
campaign and the local agency of the Soviet bureaucracy, the organisational
and financial links between the CIA and the CCF and other similar bodies
were more subtle and complex. It could be argued that as many artists, poets
and composers took some time to discover who was behind the Popular Front
campaigns of the 1930s, it is doubtful that they would be any wiser, at
least at first, of who was behind the CIA's less overtly political cultural
events. Yet I still find the indignation of certain CCF-aided figures when
the CIA's funding of the organisation subsequently became evident a little
disingenuous. There was, as Stonor-Saunders points out, some suspicion
expressed at the time in Europe about the CCF's pedigree. And did not these
intellectuals, normally so precious about their critical faculties, and with
the truth about the funding of Stalinist cultural events now common
knowledge, ever stop to think where these huge sums of money were coming
from? Perhaps when this cash was rolling in, they didn't care to ask; after
all, if some US foundation wished to cough up a tidy sum for them, well, why
complain?

The CIA's cultural crusade could have come a cropper, not so much through
left-wing opposition, but, somewhat ironically, as a result of the attitude
of US right-wingers. The CIA was sufficiently canny to attract what it
called the 'Non-Communist Left', but this friendly attitude towards Europe's
pale pink politicians and intellectuals was not popular in the USA at the
height of McCarthyite madness. The CCF's promotion of modern art and music -
including such fearsome events as its performance of material by
half-a-dozen 'cat on the piano' composers in Rome in 1954 - cheered avant
garde intellectuals, and was enjoyed by the sophisticated Ivy League types
who headed the CIA, but did not please everyone. Various voices, most
notably the Republican congressman George Dondero, could not help asking why
the US government was plugging all this perverse, communist-inspired
abstract stuff. Had it gone to a vote in Congress, this aspect of the CIA's
activities may never had been endorsed by the USA's elected representatives.

The CIA's promotion of cultural activities started to wind down from the
mid-1960s. This was partly because its operations and shady tricks started
to be exposed, but also because of the rise of oppositional political
outlooks that could not be easily wedged into the Manichean Cold War
ideological confrontation, and which therefore could not be countered or
manipulated so easily by the CIA. Far from appearing as a righteous defence
of democracy and freedom against the evils of totalitarianism, the whole
business started to look sordid, as shabby as anything organised by Moscow.

Needless to say, the much-vaunted defence of democracy and freedom that the
CCF proclaimed was strictly limited to what was acceptable to the ruling
class of the big capitalist countries, and especially of the USA. Even the
palest pink could once in a while propose something a bit too radical for
the US spooks to countenance. What emerged with the CCF was, somewhat
ironically, an orthodoxy almost as rigid as that which it was formed to
counter. As Stonor-Saunders says:

< The democratic process which Western cultural Cold Warriors rushed to
legitimise was undermined by its own lack of candour. The 'freedom' it
purveyed was compromised, 'unfree', in the sense that it was anchored to the
contradictory imperative of 'the necessary lie'. The context of the Cold
War, as drawn up by the more militant intellectuals within the Congress for
Cultural Freedom, was one where you operated under the sign of total fealty
to an ideal. The ends justified the means, even if they included lying
(directly, or by omission) to one's colleagues; ethics were subject to
politics. Pursuing an absolutist idea of freedom, they ended up by offering
another ideology, a 'freedomism', or a narcissism of freedom, which elevated
doctrine over tolerance for heretical views. >

My main criticism of this book is that Stonor-Saunders says little about the
effectiveness of the CIA's cultural crusade, and this is a product of her
lack of feel for the political aspects of the subject. The greatly mediated
relationship between the CIA and the cultural events which it sponsored
could lead to a situation in which this sponsorship, whilst not working
against its interests, did not really work in favour of it either. A
campaign that operates at such a high level of abstraction that the
political thrust is almost entirely obscured cannot really be considered as
a raging success. What's the gain if a couple of thousand people spent, say,
an evening at a gig that was financed by the CCF, if they saw it as a nice
night out, rather than part of the defence of Western civilisation against
Soviet totalitarianism?

There was certainly a steady development of anti-communist ideas within
Western intellectual circles after the Second World War, but how important
was the CIA's contribution to setting it up and maintaining it? The
right-wing European social democrats profited from the assistance that
various US institutions provided, as did right-wing union federations, not
least in France, where Irving Brown's gangsters physically attacked members
of the Stalinist unions. But what effect did the CIA's funding of cultural
events have on all this? To put it bluntly, if there was such an audience
for intellectual anti-communist sentiments, why was Encounter bankrolled by
the CIA for years, and why did it struggle financially when this subsidy
ended? Surely, if such an audience existed, the magazine would soon have
become self-financing through sales, subscriptions and advertising, even if
it had needed kick-starting by the CIA.

And what effect did all the dollars have on the East-West battle of ideas?
Like the British royal family and the Catholic Church in Ireland, Stalinism
largely discredited itself through its own efforts. That, not the
machinations of the CIA and the work of the CCF, really caused its influence
to decay. The high regard for the Soviet Union amongst intellectuals and
society at large during the late 1930s and especially during 1941-45 rapidly
evaporated in many countries as the Cold War blew up in the late 1940s and
the truth about Stalinism became more evident, and the official communist
movement was given a major blow in 1956 after Khrushchev delivered his
'Secret Speech' and then ordered the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution.
The continuing regard for the Soviet Union and the existence of large
communist parties in Italy and France were far more based on
anti-Americanism and memories of the wartime resistance, than upon a wish
for the Stalinisation of those countries. In the Third World, the influence
of Stalinism was far more based upon the appeal of an étatised society that
could stand up against imperialism, than upon any real allegiance to Moscow.

None of this could be effectively fought merely by promoting anti-communism.
The CIA's cultural crusade was unable to translate the anti-communist
sentiments that developed amongst intellectuals after 1945 into a widespread
endorsement of Western civilisation in general and of the USA's role in the
world in particular. Nowadays, with the Cold War just a memory and with
nothing much against which it can measure itself, it is hardly surprising
that the USA is experiencing even more problems in promoting a positive
image around the world.

These reservations apart, Who Paid the Piper? will be of great interest to
anyone involved in the study of the US-European relations, the Cold War and
the murky world of intelligence services.

Paul Flewers




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