The CIA funded British intelligentsia to help stop communism. The results were mixed, but they paved the way for Tony Blair, says Hugh Wilford.
It was a revelation that scandalised British intellectual life. In 1967, the influential Anglo-American magazine Encounter was shown to have received covert subsidies from the US Central Intelligence Agency for a decade. One newspaper likened it to a "literary Bay of Pigs".
The secret funding had been channelled to the London-based magazine via its publisher, the Congress for Cultural Freedom. This ostensibly independent organisation aimed to strengthen the intellectual voice of liberal anti-communism or, as the CIA designated it, the "non-communist left". It was seen as an essential element of the cold-war battle for hearts and minds.
The CIA - which was already under fire after the exposure of its clandestine links to anti-communist student organisations, labour unions and news agencies - was accused of suborning the very cultural freedom the CCF was supposed to be defending. Meanwhile, young intellectuals on the "new left" bitterly accused the previous generation of non-communist leftists of having allowed themselves to be duped by the hidden hand of the US government.
Amid renewed talk of the US exercising undue influence over elements of the British left, and with a large body of historical evidence now available, it seems a good time to attempt a fuller, more balanced assessment of the impact of the "cultural cold war".
The initial response of British intellectuals to the CIA's cultural blandishments was one of suspicion. The founding conference of the CCF, in West Berlin in June 1950, was constantly disrupted by mischievous interventions from two Oxford dons, Hugh Trevor-Roper and A. J. Ayer. Both repeatedly objected to what they regarded as the excessive anti-communism of the event's organisers, in particular Arthur Koestler.
Gradually, however, the CCF was established on a permanent basis. It had headquarters on Paris's Right Bank, a large secretariat and a programme of activities that included seminars, festivals and concerts. Of course, everything was secretly paid for by the CIA. What is more, it appeared to win over Britain's cold-war intelligentsia.
A national affiliate, the British Society for Cultural Freedom, was set up in January 1951 under the leadership of such prominent literary intellectuals as Stephen Spender, Malcolm Muggeridge and Fredric Warburg.
In addition to staging a number of public cultural events, the society's officers also engaged in covert surveillance of suspected communist front organisations.
Having built a bridgehead in British literary circles, the CCF set about gaining the confidence of the most strategically important segment of the country's non-communist left - the young intellectuals on the right of the Labour Party. The most brilliant figure of this group - whose members were known as Gaitskellites after their leader, Hugh Gaitskell, the former chancellor of the exchequer - was Anthony Crosland, a future Labour foreign secretary. He willingly performed a number of tasks on the organisation's behalf, such as reporting on its Scandinavian sections.
Another key figure, Rita Hinden - editor of Socialist Commentary, the principal theoretical organ of the Labour right - was funded to lecture throughout the Far East.
There had been no Labour presence at the founding congress. But five years later, a CCF conference called in Milan to discuss the "Future of Freedom" was attended by Crosland, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Gaitskell (now Labour Party leader).
The CCF even succeeded in establishing a presence in British academe, with the émigré chemist and polymath Michael Polanyi running the Committee on Science and Freedom from Manchester University. Polanyi also chaired the planning committee of "Tradition and Change", a series of seminars that included a meeting in 1957 at St Antony's College, Oxford, on the theme of "Changes in Soviet Society".
But most spectacular of all was the success of Encounter. The magazine, launched in 1953 under the joint editorship of Spender and the young New York intellectual Irving Kristol, overcame early apprehensions that it was a cold war Trojan horse. It carved out a reputation as the foremost journal of "serious" political opinion and cultural expression in the English language, securing contributions from a remarkably wide cross-section of British intellectuals, again including young Labourites such as Crosland and Jenkins. When Labour took power in 1964, Kristol's successor as US editor, Melvin Lasky, was able to boast: "We are all pleased to have so many of our friends in the new government."
Considering the extent of the CCF's reach in 1950s Britain, it is not hard to see why some observers concluded that the CIA had succeeded in colonising the consciousness of the British left. There is, however, another side to the story that talk of brainwashing fails to take into account.
For one thing, several eminent intellectuals remained mistrustful of the CCF. Bertrand Russell was at the centre of a series of embarrassing public rows about McCarthyism with the CCF's US affiliate, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. This culminated in 1957 with his noisy resignation from one of the CCF's honorary chairs.
More significantly, it appears that most of the British intellectuals involved in the CCF's operations knew all along about the organisation's links to the US government. Indeed, according to his own disarmingly candid account, Muggeridge helped arrange counterpart funding for Encounter 's British editor from MI6. As well as demonstrating many cold war intellectuals' intimacy with their own country's secret services, Muggeridge's intervention also hints at the scale of behind-the-scenes cooperation between the US and UK intelligence communities.
The CIA, forced to conceal itself behind front organisations, ran the danger of seeing its patronage being used for purposes that had little or nothing to do with the cold war. Such acts of appropriation could be crude and literal. Officers of the British Society for Cultural Freedom apparently took friends out for lunch joking: "The American taxpayers are paying."
Others were more subtle and ingenious. Spender, who was described by the American Dwight Macdonald as possessing the air of "a kindly, absent-minded uncle", in fact displayed considerable cunning and ruthlessness. He fashioned Encounter according to his personal editorial vision, as a reincarnation of Horizon, the "little magazine" he had helped produce in the 1940s.
An important but overlooked aspect of Encounter's early history is the way in which Spender used his editorship to shore up the cultural authority of metropolitan, modernist literati like himself. This proved crucial at a time when Bloomsbury was coming under attack from anti-modernist, provincial literary impulses such as the Movement and Angry Young Men. In a similar way, Gaitskellite intellectuals such as Crosland used Encounter to win arguments about the Labour Party's domestic economic programme with the "Bevanites" of the left.
The British response to the CIA's cultural cold war effort was clearly more complex and varied than allegations of hoodwinking would have one believe.
There were elements of resistance, cooperation and appropriation. This is not to say, though, that the American campaign misfired completely. It could be argued that, in helping to buttress Bloomsbury's dominance over anti-modernist expressions of literary nationalism, Encounter indirectly reinforced US cultural power, which, in the postwar period, was becoming increasingly identified with modernism and internationalism.
Meanwhile, in the more obviously political world of Labour intellectuals, the CCF provided important institutional backing for the Gaitskellites in their doctrinal war of position with Bevanism. Again, it is possible to interpret this conflict as one between internationalists and nationalists, with the Bevanites trying, unsuccessfully, to formulate a leftwing politics of British resistance to growing American preponderance. To the extent that the CIA aided the Gaitskellites' eventual intellectual ascendancy in the Labour Party, it succeeded in making the political culture of the British left more Atlanticist and less socialist. It thereby helped pave the way for the "revisionist", pro-US policies of Tony Blair's new Labour.
Hugh Wilford is a lecturer in American history at the University of Sheffield. His book, The CIA, the British Left and the Cold War: Calling the Tune?, was published last week by Frank Cass (£45.00). THES readers who order direct from Frank Cass can purchase it for £35.00.
Call 0208 920 2100 or email firstname.lastname@example.org , quoting reference WILFORD.
Postage and packing is free to all UK customers.