The CIA-Soviet Culture Wars That Shaped American Art
Who's Afraid of Communist Writers?
In 1956, W. E. B. Du Bois was invited to attend the Congress of Black Writers and Artists, a conference organized mainly by Alioune Diop (editor of the journal Présence Africaine) to support and strengthen the production of literature by black writers. The conference promised to be significant, with many luminaries in attendance. Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Jacques Rabemananjara, and Richard Wright were all on the planning committee. And, as Diop would note in his eventual “Opening Address,” the congress was designed to be a second Bandung (the Bandung Conference, a large gathering of representatives from recently independent or soon to be independent African and Asian nations to discuss political self-determination and establish nonaggression and noninterference understandings, had been held the year before in Indonesia): “To-day will be marked with a white stone. If to the non-European mind the Bandoeng meeting has been the most important event since the end of the War, I venture to assert that this first World Congress of Negro Men of Culture will be regarded by our peoples as the second event of the decade.”
Du Bois had been among those invited to attend the congress, but he was unable to do so because the U.S. government had revoked his passport the previous year. So instead of attending, Du Bois sent a telegram to be read at the conference: “Any Negro-American who travels abroad today must either not discuss race conditions in the United States or say the sort of thing which our state Department wishes the world to believe. The government especially objects to me because I am a socialist and because I belief [sic] in peace with Communist states like the Soviet Union and their right to exist in security.”
Du Bois’s concerns were not far-fetched. Nor were they paranoid. While there is nothing to indicate that Du Bois knew this at the time, the Americans who were invited to attend as presenters—included were Horace Mann Bond, Mercer Cook, John Davis, James Ivy, William Fontaine, and Wright—were funded by the American Committee on Race and Class (sometimes called the Council of Race and Caste in World Affairs), a CIA front group. In addition, all had agreed to file reports to the Congress for Cultural Freedom, another CIA front group created to covertly launder funds from the CIA into various cultural diplomacy projects, when they returned. Cook, a professor at Howard University, would eventually become the director of African programming for the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the 1960s. It was Wright though, not Cook, who had a large influence on the composition of the American delegates. Wright was on the team that assisted Diop with the organization of the Congress of Black Writers and Artists. He had missed the first few meetings because he was out of town and when he finally attended he realized that there was talk of Du Bois being invited. Hazel Rowley, Wright’s biographer, quotes a dispatch that the American embassy in Paris sent to the State Department that mentioned that Wright had “on his own initiative” contacted the embassy because he was worried that “the Communists might exploit the Congress to their own ends.” He requested assistance from the embassy in suggesting “possible American negro delegates who are relatively well known for their cultural achievements and who could combat the leftist tendencies of the Congress.” Wright “returned to the Embassy on several occasions to discuss ways in which they could ‘offset Communist influence.’” This was not Wright’s first experience as an informant. In 1954 he named Communist names at the American consul in France. And it would not be his only attempt to block Du Bois. Du Bois’s name, with Paul Robeson’s, was put forward as a desired member of the executive council when Diop was assembling his Société Africaine de Culture the following year. Wright worked with John Davis to pressure Diop by threatening to abandon plans for a Society for African Culture in the United States if the national chapters were not allowed to nominate the members of the Société. When Diop succumbed, the U.S. chapter nominated Duke Ellington and Thurgood Marshall.
It is impossible to know what Du Bois would have said if he had attended the congress (or if he would have attended if he could have). But we do know that the U.S. delegates who attended spent much of their time arguing about anticolonialism with many of the fellow attendees. John Davis, for instance, complained about the negativity of Aimé Césaire’s talk and argued with his claims that American blacks, because of racism, occupy an “artificial position” that “can only be understood within the context of a colonialism.” According to Davis, American Negros do not “look forward to any self-determination.” Wright gave a talk at the second Présence Africaine Congress of Black Writers and Artists in support of colonialism as a form of modernization, one that claimed that the “Western world helped, unconsciously and unintentionally, to smash the irrational ties of religion and custom and tradition in Asia and Africa! THIS IS MY OPINION, IS THE CENTRAL HISTORICAL FACT!” and also one that argued that “Nehru, Nkrumah, Nasser, Sukarno, and the Western educated chiefs of these newly created national states must be given carte blanche right to modernize their lands without overlordship of the West and we must understand the methods they will feel compelled to use. . . . Yes, Sukarno, Nehru, Nasser and others will use dictatorial methods to hasten the process of social evolution and to establish order in their lands.” James Baldwin in “Princes and Powers,” his report on the congress, mentioned that Du Bois’s telegram and Wright’s talk (which he called “strange”) “increased and seemed to justify the distrust with which all Americans are regarded abroad, and it made yet deeper, for the five American Negroes present, that gulf which yawns between the American Negro and all other men of color.”
While the CIA networks were especially interested in anticommunist leftists (such as Mary McCarthy) and former communists who were willing to openly denounce communism (such as Wright), the beneficiaries of this largess make up a who’s who of early to mid-century U.S. culture, everyone from A. J. Ayer to Julia Child to Czeslaw Milosz. Much of the culture part of the Cold War was overseen by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was established in 1950. (The name Congress for Cultural Freedom, similar to how the viceroy mimics the monarch, resembles the “Committee for Cultural Freedom,” an antitotalitarian organization started in 1939 by James Dewey and Sidney Hook that was opposed to both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.) The Congress for Cultural Freedom was active for over 17 years. After a 1967 New York Times exposé (following up on a story first published in the journal Ramparts) that the congress was a front group for the CIA, the CIA turned the congress over to the Ford Foundation and its name was changed to the International Association for Cultural Freedom.
Frances Stonor Saunders documents the events organized by the Congress for Cultural Freedom in exhausting detail in The Cultural Cold War. She notes that “at its peak, the Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in thirty-five countries, employed dozens of personnel, published over twenty prestige magazines, held art exhibits, owned a news and features service, organized high-profile international conferences, and rewarded musicians and arts with prizes and public performances.” There are so many parts to this machine that it is almost impossible to summarize or understand them all. I have pieced together the story I am attempting to tell here from a wide variety of sources so as to suggest the extended reach of these forces. While a number of scholars have done crucial archival and historical work on this story, few have attempted to consider not only how these forces overlap and amplify each other but also how they resonant and define the last half of the 20th century (Saunders’s study is exhaustive, for instance, but she ends her study with the New York Times exposé).
The CIA’s interest in more abstract and avant garde art forms was not limited to [Gertrude] Stein. It also included organized tours set up by the Museum of Modern Art of abstract expressionist art and of free-form jazz. This interest in “autonomous” forms seems to have had a lot to do with the Soviet Union. Culture played a big role in the Russian Revolution. In its early months, especially before the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, the revolution embraced the avant garde. Geoff Eley in Forging Democracy:
In 1917, the revolution had released the imagination—a sense of no holds barred, of being on the edge of possibility. . . . It brought an ecstasy of transgression, in which the people occupied the palaces and art suffused the texture of life, dissolving dichotomies between high culture and low. In the vast popular festivals, like May Day 1918 in Petrograd and the Bolshevik revolution’s first anniversary in Moscow or the four great Petrograd festivals of 1920, the masses staged symbolic dramas of history, while the artists seized the potential of the streets—of carnival and circus, puppetry and cartoons, and other popular media. Carrying art to the masses took many forms in 1918–20: the ubiquitous posters; street theater; factory arts groups, with genres of industrial writing and performance; and the “agit-trains” that used art and film to politicize the peasants. The forms were carnivalesque rather than monumental, the aesthetic one of movement rather than order.
Shortly after the 1917 revolution, Anatoly Lunacharsky established Proletkult, an artistic institution that supported artists in the creation of a revolutionary aesthetic and that demanded autonomy from the Bolshevik government in order to do so. In Culture of the Future: The Proletkult Movement in Revolutionary Russia, Lyn Mally points out that in the fall of 1920 “the center claimed between four hundred thousand and five hundred thousand members, eighty thousand of those in elite artistic studios” (although she also notes that these numbers are not definitive). Vladimir Mayakovsky’s early works, full of revolution and experimentation, come out of this moment. Proletkult was amazingly successful up until 1920, the year it was absorbed into Narkompros (aka absorbed into the Bolshevik government).
Prior to 1920, there was very little meaningful differentiation between art and propaganda. And the Russian Revolution in its beginnings embraced avant garde modernism as one of the forms that a revolutionary art might take. But after the Bolsheviks won the Civil War, they began to regulate cultural production. Mally again: “As soon they took power, the Bolsheviks began a structural reorganization of national cultural life. Despite the precarious position of the regime, the state offered funds, physical resources, and food rations to a broad array of revolutionary cultural circles. At the same time, it denied support to institutions whose sympathies were suspect, even intervening to close them down.” The murder of Nikolay Gumilev, an anticommunist poet, in 1921 is often seen as the beginning of a fairly significant repression of artists who refused socialist realism or Bolshevik politics. By the time the First Soviet Writers’ Congress was held in 1934, it was clear that the Soviet Union’s interest was limited to the social realism that Lenin called a “party literature” in his 1905 “Party Organization and Party Literature.”
This might not have mattered much to the U.S. government except that the Soviet Union had an extensive cultural diplomacy program. Mayakovsky’s tours of Europe, the United States, Mexico, and Cuba in the 1920s, where he met with various socialists and communists, were part of this. And it is possible to argue that as the U.S. Communist Party received funds from the Soviet Union, that the organizations they established such as the John Reed Clubs and magazines like The Masses and Partisan Review (in its early years) that supported and published leftist work written in the United States were also part of this cultural diplomacy. During these years the cultural diplomacy programs in the Soviet Union and the United States developed symbiotically and often resembled and echoed each other. As the Soviet Union federalized support for the arts, the United States established the Works Progress Administration. As the Soviet Union tended to fund and organize not only national events such as the Soviet Writers’ Congresses, but also events like 1949’s Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace that was held in New York and the First International Peace Conference held in Paris, so the Congress for Cultural Freedom organized the International Day of Resistance to Dictatorship and War in Paris the same year. Both the United States and the Soviet Union used similar rhetoric, although in different directions. The arguments Karl Radek made about modernism at the 1934 Soviet Writers’ Congress—that it was petty bourgeois; that it was not proletarian—was defended as freedom by the United States. The U.S. post–World War II propaganda machine not only supported Radek’s analysis that “trying to present a picture of revolution by the Joyce method would be like trying to catch a dreadnought with a shrimping net” (supported because they opposed a worker’s revolution) but it also indulged a Casanova-style rhetoric in which experimentation was presented as a sign of the autonomy of the U.S. artist and was a U.S. value. As Barnhisel writes, “The American cultural-diplomacy establishment felt that if European artists and intellectuals migrated to ‘Picasso’s side,’ the West would lose the cultural war. Countering the rhetorical use of the term peace, then, the West mustered its own trope: freedom.”
Adapted from Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment by Juliana Spahr, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2018 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.