[Marxism] Melvin Lasky: "A Brusque Little Guy From the Bronx"

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Wed May 26 02:22:32 MDT 2004

(It seems like the Grim Reaper, or is it the biological
solution taking its toll on these lesser figures from the
Cold War against the Soviet Union. Melvin Lasky was one
of those media prestitutes who whose activities, like
those of the Soviet dissidents during those times and
the Cuban dissidents today, whose work was paid for by
the Western, and, mainly by the US intelligence services,
as this Wall Street Journal story reluctantly admits.

(Scholars in recent years have begun to unveil the details
of their activities, such as Frances Stonor Saunders whose
heavily-documented study, THE CIA AND THE CULTURAL COLD WAR,
over six hundred pages long, was published last year in a
complete Cuban edition for a mere twenty Cuban pesos. Read
the introduction by Cuba's Ricardo Alarcon to Saunders'
book: http://makeashorterlink.com/?I22812668

May 26, 2004
A Brusque Little Guy From the Bronx
By DANIEL JOHNSON May 26, 2004

Although he was denounced by the communist press as a
"Trotskyite-Fascist," Melvin Lasky looked like Lenin and
talked like Marx (Groucho, not Karl). For nearly half a
century, Lasky, who died last week, was a leading
journalistic protagonist of the Cold War.

>From his editorial chair -- starting in 1948 at the
Berlin-based Der Monat (the Month) and most memorably from
1958 to 1990 at the London-based Anglo-American monthly
magazine, Encounter -- Lasky assembled an awesome
trans-Atlantic coalition of fellow cold warriors. Since the
phrase "anti-communist intellectuals" was widely regarded
as an oxymoron at the time, this would have been a
thankless task for the most emollient of editors. Lasky was
an abrasive one. The brusque little guy from the Bronx was
not always welcomed in the literary salons of Europe, and
not only because of his politics.

In his active service as a cold warrior, Lasky began on the
barricades of a divided Berlin and then moved behind the
lines to London, before retiring to a reunited Berlin. The
first of two defining moments in his life came in 1947
when, having left the U.S. Army, he was living in West
Berlin as a correspondent for two liberal American
journals, The New Leader and Partisan Review. Churchill's
"iron curtain" had just descended, and Berlin was supplied
only by an airlift from the West. At a writers' congress
intended to be a Soviet propaganda exercise, young Lasky
was among those invited as token Westerners merely to give
the event a veneer of balance. But he scandalized the
communist audience by holding forth in fluent German with a
devastating comparison of Stalin's expanding empire to the
defunct Third Reich. His intervention, printed in full the
next day in the West Berlin press, ensured that this first
congress was also the last.

Gen. Lucius Clay, the U.S. military governor in West
Berlin, initially was alarmed by such outspokenness and
considered expelling Lasky. But he was soon obliged to
concede that the Soviets were indeed treating culture as a
continuation of the Cold War by other means, and that, as
Lasky said, "it was time to take off the kid gloves." Lasky
saw Berlin as a Wild West frontier town with "Indians on
the horizon, and you've simply got to have that rifle

In 1954, Lasky came face-to-face with Bertolt Brecht at a
broadcast discussion in a West Berlin restaurant. The
communist playwright was at the height of his fame in both
East and West. Naturally, Lasky immediately challenged the
great man, at first eliciting only this icy reply: "With
war criminals and warmongers there can be no discussion.
These are enemies of mankind and must be annihilated for
the sake of humanity." Undaunted, Lasky returned to the
attack. Would Brecht like to have five pages to speak his
piece in Der Monat, without editorial interference, in
return for Lasky getting a similar amount of space in one
of the leading East German periodicals? Put on the spot,
Brecht agreed to the deal. Naturally, he did not deliver,
and the "warmonger" Lasky found himself persona non grata
in East Germany. He was only allowed to cross the Berlin
Wall again 35 years later in 1989, on the eve of the
revolution that would sweep it away.

Unlike Der Monat, Encounter was not Lasky's creation. 
Its real founder, together with the English poet Stephen
Spender, was Irving Kristol, who established its unique
trans-Atlantic reputation as a serious forum for politics
and culture. Under Lasky, however, Encounter's office
between Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square became an
intellectual haven for refugees of all kinds, defying
liberal censorship in the West no less than illiberal
censorship in the East.

In front of me I have a typical issue, chosen at random,
from July 1961. Its contents include: Theodore Draper on
"Disaster in Cuba" (a celebrated analysis of the abortive
Bay of Pigs invasion); Hugh Trevor-Roper on "A.J.P. Taylor,
Hitler and the War" (a first shot in a notoriously
acrimonious historical controversy); Mary McCarthy on
"Americans, Realists, Playwrights" (a critique of Arthur
Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill); Malcolm
Muggeridge on "The Queen and I" (mocking English
monarchists); T.S. Eliot writing about his publisher,
Geoffrey Faber; Marcus Cunliffe on Harvard; Nigel Dennis on
new plays by Sartre and Genet; C.A.R. (Tony) Crosland's
"Thoughts on English Education" (the future Labour minister
sounded a death knell for elitism); and finally Lasky
himself, writing on "Africa for Beginners."

Encounter was read not only in the White House and in
Whitehall, but in the Kremlin, too. Its articles were often
anthologized or expanded into influential books. No
magazine on either side of the Atlantic today could boast a
comparable list of contributors. However, Encounter was too
highbrow to sell more than 40,000 copies an issue. Though
it paid modestly, it lost money and needed a sugar daddy.
>From 1953 to 1964, this was the Congress for Cultural

In that same July 1961 issue is a defense of Encounter by
its editors against the attacks of a Marxist historian,
Perry Anderson. Lasky and Spender note that, "we are not a
journal with an all-embracing political programme . . . We
have published socialists and conservatives, neutralists
and cold-warriors; unilateralists and multilateralists."
They also defend the Congress for Cultural Freedom against
Anderson's charge that it was merely an anti-Soviet front
organization. The editors pointed out that it helped
political prisoners in Spain under Franco and in South
Africa under apartheid, as well as Russian dissidents such
as Boris Pasternak.

All this was true enough. What Lasky did not write (and
Spender later claimed not to have known) was that the
Congress was funded by the CIA. When in 1967 the truth came
out that Encounter had been indirectly subsidized by the
CIA, a number of eminent contributors distanced themselves:
Lionel Trilling, Jean Paul Sartre, V.S. Naipaul, Spender
himself. Others said they had never been under any
illusion: A.J. Ayer, for instance, noted that there were
"many worse uses to which the CIA might and indeed did
apply its funds." But the damage was done.

For Lasky, this was the second defining moment in his life.
For him, what mattered was which side one was on; he saw
the professed scruples of more fastidious colleagues as a
"trahison des clercs." Not only did he refuse to resign --
he held on for two more decades. Lasky's editorship would
not end until the Cold War was won. It was a Pyrrhic
victory in one sense: Encounter survived the Berlin Wall by
less than a year.

What made Lasky a great editor? It was his readiness to
subordinate his own not-inconsiderable ego to those of his
contributors. (Especially the young. I remember the
pleasure it gave him, as well as me, when he chose to make
an essay of mine the cover piece in 1989.) No less
important were his infectious enthusiasm, insatiable
curiosity, inexhaustible energy and, above all, his
devotion to the cause of freedom.

Alas, he could not bear to hand over the magazine he loved:
Instead, he preferred to let it die. The fact that
Encounter has never been replaced is due not only to the
end of the Cold War, but to the strange death of
Atlanticism. Lasky was among the last of the generation of
Americans who, having spent their lives defending Europe's
hard-won liberty, came to feel almost as European as they
were American. I never saw Mel happier than in the old
Jewish quarter of Krakow, reflecting on his family's
origins in another ghetto, farther east, in Lvov. On
another occasion in Berlin, he raged against the selective
amnesia of his adoptive Continent. Could a latter-day Lasky
make himself at home among today's Europeans, who no longer
know -- or care -- to whom they owe their liberty?

Mr. Johnson is an associate editor of London's Daily

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