Henry Ergas had an important piece in The Australian today to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the launch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris. The purpose was to fight the Culture Front in the Cold War. This was a “triple alliance” of anti-communist leftists, conservatives and (a small representation) of non-socialist liberal/libertarians. The late Peter Coleman was heavily involved in the Australian branch of the Congress, the Association for Cultural Freedom. They launched Quadrant magazine with James McAuley as the editor. Peter had several spells in the editorial chair and became a major historian of the Congress with The Liberal Conspiracy based on interviews with survivors of the movement many years after it folded in the 1960s.
The book is an invaluable account of the counter-attack by liberal intellectuals in the battle of ideas with communism. At the time that this story begins, Arthur Koestler was convinced that the future of civilisation would be decided by the outcome of the battle between communists and ex-communists like himself. He believed that others could not comprehend the true nature of their adversary, with its capacity to recruit both the best of people and the worst of people. He was mistaken. The thin anti-red line was held by a mix of ex-communists and others who had not drunk from that poisoned cup.
This is Peter’s account of researching the book. It too many years and involved interviews all over the world.
The CCF, as an organisation of writers and intellectuals, was formed in Berlin at the height of the Cold War, soon after the communist triumphs in Central Europe and China and at the moment of the North Korean attack on South Korea. It called on writers and intellectuals to abandon neutralism and say No to Stalin as they had once said No to Hitler.
Its real origins are earlier still. It grew out of the tense, frenzied and sometimes heart-wrenching ideological passions of the anti-Stalinist Left that emerged gradually in the late 1920s and more emphatically in the 1930s. Most (not all) of the participants in the Berlin 1950 Congress had in their youth been either communists or fellow travellers. All had been disenchanted by the series of terrible events in the USSR — the Ukrainian famine, the slave camps, the purges, the show trials, the Hitler–Stalin pact. They came to see the Soviet Union, in Solzhenitsyn’s phrase, as The Lie — indeed the underlying Lie of the age.
Some became Trotskyists, some Bukharinites, some liberals, a few even became conservatives. One or two, not many, returned to the religious faith of their fathers. Most preferred to call themselves anti-Stalinist rather than anticommunist: it left open the option that one day a true communism would emerge, free of Stalinist perversions.
We could use something like that “triple alliance” again today!
Edward Shils in the old Congress understood the problem. In attempting to redefine the aim of the Congress in the 1960s, he argued that there is already a worldwide liberal community, however weak it may be. It has no corporate structure (as a professional association has), it has no formal hierarchy of authority (as the universities do) and it has no formal articles of faith (as churches do). It is something like the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. It exists, but it needs delineating and strengthening. This, he said, should be the task of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Today, forty years later, this would still be the mission of any new Congress.