THE AESTHETIC COLD WAR: Decolonization and Global Literature

Peter J. Kalliney

ISBN 978-0-691-23063-4   Princeton  £35

 reviewed by Alan Dent

One of the most interesting observations comes at the end of this fascinating study: “..most large states have lost interest in books and ideas.” The reason is touched on a few pages earlier: “powerful states abandoned large scale intervention in the literary field in favour of a capitalist marketplace for books and ideas.” Delicately put. More robustly, the post-modern shibboleth that there can be no hierarchy of values, that desire is a test of value, has permitted the cultural conduits to be filled with trash, commercial values to predominate and has destroyed the ground in which challenging work can take root. If it sells, it’s good, if it doesn’t it’s worthless. Joe Orton was right: there is no necessary artistic success in a commercial flop. No more is there in a commercial success. Milan Kundera is right too when he says that without criticism, literature is doomed to swift oblivion. Criticism becomes meaningless when subjectivity prevails. The pursuit of extreme subjectivity now does the work once done by the spy agencies. 

Kalliney sees the Cold War as one the defining forces of the literature of the twentieth century, in keeping with Frances Stonor Saunders. The reach of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, established in 1950, was impressive. So was the extent of publishing by the Soviet enterprise Progress. Writers couldn’t be left alone. Literature couldn’t be permitted autonomy. However, paradoxically, Kalliney argues that snooping and attempts at control, to some degree and in some ways, achieved the opposite of what they intended. Some writers were canny enough to take support from both sides without giving up their awkwardness. The writers featured are mostly anti-colonial non-Eurpoeans. Many were spied on, some bullied, some imprisoned or exiled, some executed. What a price must be paid for a few poems, novels and plays.  

The book begins with a reference to Achebe’s dismissal of art for art’s sake as “just another piece of deodorised dog shit”. Throughout there’s a tension between what Achebe takes aim at and the notion of “committed” literature. To swing from rejection of art as “accountable to no one” to being accountable to party hacks is to swop one irresponsibility for another. Perhaps what Camus said is worth hanging onto: literature is no man’s enemy. Art for art’s sake has produced some drab dead-ends but socialist realism is equally dismal. We know real literature when we read it as we know time-serving and cowardice.  

Achebe, correctly, attacked Conrad for his racism. It’s interesting, however, that in his fiction Conrad was able to recognise capitalism and its colonialism for what it was. He was a racist all right, but one with severe doubts about the whole process which made racism necessary, an indication of literature’s ability to permit writers to transcend their banal opinions. 

The Bandung Conference (1955) laid down markers. Its call for powerful States (above all the US and the Soviet Union) to cease applying pressure to smaller countries, was correct if naïve. In its wake Fanon argued that the anti-colonial movement must adopt neither the capitalism nor the socialism of the colonisers. Like George Padmore, he rejected dependency on the wisdom and experience of the oppressors. Padmore, of course, was a CP member for a while and lived in the USSR until he broke with the Stalinists over their distinction between democratic and fascist colonialists. Perhaps his trajectory suggests the attraction of ideology, either communist or liberal-capitalist to people involved in the anti-colonial struggle, and maybe its exactly here, where a ready-made view seems to solve conundrums that the subtlety and refusal of fixed positions of creative writers is necessary. Writers faced a dilemma, however: the chance of sponsorship and substantial audiences on the one hand, surveillance and repression on the other. The former required compliance, the latter meant, at least, difficulty getting into print. Both the US and the Soviet Union engaged in what Kalliney calls “packaging their own talent for export”. It goes without saying you didn’t get packaged unless you were the right kind of gift.  

C.L.R James and Claudia Jones were both deported from the US. The former was a consistent critic of Stalinism, but that didn’t suffice to make him palatable to the American Establishment. His sin wasn’t communism but independence. The heavy-handed treatment of these writers was also meted out by some post-colonial States; Faiz Ahmed Faiz was imprisoned in Pakistan for four years (he was an avowed Marxist and supporter of the Soviet Union for some time);Sajjaad Zaheer was also a Party member and imprisoned for the same length of time; Rajat Neogy, founder of the influential Transition, spent a few months behind bars and at length sought refuge in California; Ngugr wa Thiong’o was forced to write on toilet paper during his incarceration and Wole Soyinka was imprisoned and faced death threats. Once colonial States, on gaining independence, have tough decisions to make and carry the burden of ingrained colonial habits. What irony could be greater than anti-colonial writers being punished by their post-colonial rulers?  

At the first Soviet Writers’ Congress Karel Radek commented on Joyce: “ (his) basic feature is that there is nothing big in life – no big events, no big, people, no big ideas; and the writer can give a picture of life just by taking “any given hero on any given day” and reproducing him with exactitude. A heap of dung, crawling with worms, photographed by a cinema apparatus through a microscope -such is Joyce’s work” 

There may be a grain of truth in this, and there are many ways Joyce can be criticised (what, for example is the sexual crime at the heart of Finnegans Wake ;is Joyce slyly pointing to a sex crime of his own?) but it gives scant credit to the undoubted originality of Joyce’s mind, and it is not accurate in relation to Dubliners. Perhaps what’s missing from Joyce is what is at the heart of Baudelaire: a sense that the world has gone wrong (like the writer’s sensibility). Joyce takes the world as it is, which is somewhat pusillanimous for such an unconventional writer. Yet at the same time there is a deeply democratic impulse behind granting status to the common folk who populate his fiction.  

In 1956 the First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists was convened at the Sorbonne by Présence Africaine. It was opened by its editor, Alioune Diop, who had established his magazine as a non-aligned publication whose aim was to engage all people of goodwill who wanted to see the creativity of Africa given its rightful place in the world (the essential question, of course, was what kind of world). W.E.B. Dubois sent his apologies by telegram: he was excluded by a US government ban. Its citizens travelling abroad were forbidden to discuss matters of race. James Baldwin and Richard Wright were there. They  had connections to the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which engendered suspicion. Kalliney makes the point that negative response to Dubois’s ban forced the US to grant him travel rights, indicating that the US authorities couldn’t ignore the opinions of world’s poorer countries, mostly ex-colonies.  

Evgeny Dobrenko defined socialist realism as an impossible literature. Its essence was an attempt to pretend modernism had never happened. Literature hadn’t developed in the way the theory predicted, so reality is sacrificed to theory. Of course, literature has always been under State pressure, as Robert Darnton touches on in his classic study, Censors at Work. Writers have never been free to say what they like in the way they like. Interestingly, by having to find ways round the censors, authors have sometimes innovated in ways the censors didn’t anticipate. How much literature has been lost to censorship, whether that of the Stasi or the market, we’ll never know. What is clear: literature troubles the powerful and one way or another they’ll try to control it.  

The Makerere Conference of 1962 witnessed African writers defending their right to creative autonomy. Christopher Okigbo, for example, defended his poetry as experimental. He rejected the notion that racial difference should be a defining feature of literature, as did Woyinka. The anti-colonial struggle was one thing, literature another. The latter couldn’t be made to serve the former in some propagandist manner. Okigbo’s Limits, part of which he read, is a piece of thoroughgoing modernism. It might attract more criticism for being obscure than too tied to a cause. Of course, in accepting the modernist tradition, black writers were allying themselves with questionable practice: some of the key figures of modernism were straightforward racists, and their reactionary and wayward views were far from peripheral to their work.  

Black Orpheus, founded by Ulli Beier in 1957 struck a printing and distribution deal with Longman which guaranteed to continue the non-political nature of the magazine. It was supported by the CCF, like Rajat Neogy’s Transition. Was it possible for the magazine to be non-political? In a party-political sense, certainly, but choice of material is always a political matter to at least a small degree. The CCF must have been delighted by a putative non-political stance: it served its politics beautifully. Imagine a magazine publishing in Germany between 1933 and 39 which asserted its non-political orientation, or the same in the Soviet Union under Stalin; it’s perfectly possible to argue that writers and artists must be left to decide, they mustn’t be corralled; but who can remain neutral when fascism or totalitarianism are on the march? Literature isn’t a morality free zone. As Dante said, the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who retain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. 

Transition condemned what it called the “plain reader”, asserting the right of the author to disregard comprehensibility by the masses. Once again, the CCF must have loved it. The “difficulty” of modernism has been a great gift to reaction. It has driven the masses into the arms of the commercial interests who have made mass culture a wing of the propaganda system. Orwell was able to write at a high level and gain a mass audience, so was Lawrence, at least in Lady Chatterley, which encouraged some readers to taste the rest of his work. The revulsion of writers before mass taste has contributed greatly to the spread of stupefaction. It’s true that some high-quality work gets through to big audiences, but if you can sell a hundred thousand copies of a third-rate novel, why would you publish a first-rate one which will sell only ten thousand? Commercialism also does the work once done by the secret services.  

Robin Macauley was a CIA agent who wrote for Transition and edited The Kenyon Review. Kalliney, however, doesn’t conclude that the US was using little magazines to defend and promote its interests. He argues there is “ample evidence” of criticism of the US. Surely, that’s what you’d expect? Complete absence of such criticism would be too crude; allowing some criticism, within limits, would surely be part of the stock in trade of the spy agencies. 

Neogy argued that a little magazine which was part of the anti-colonial movement should also belong to the avant-garde; readers who could cope with difficult poetry would be more capable of untangling convoluted political arguments. He was no coward; for his criticism of Obote he was imprisoned. His argument has some traction: people who read demanding books are less likely to fall for fallacious reasoning, but there needs to be a balance between demand and understanding. A surprising number of intelligent people are defeated by Ulysees. Is that their failing or Joyce’s or does it lie somewhere between the two? On the other hand, it could be argued that appealing to a limited but influential audience is enough; but that presupposes a high degree of moral discrimination on the part of the influential.  

The problem lies also in the origin of the avant-garde. The historical fact is that European literature has influenced that of developing nations much more than vice-versa. How many European writers would cite Achebe or Soyinka or Neogy as major influences? An ingrained sense of superiority is very hard to dislodge. 

Mphalele was sponsored by the CCF and did his Phd in Colorado. Strange that anti-colonial writers should end up in the US, the settle-colonial society par excellence. US pre-eminence, which grants it the power to accommodate such people, is built firmly on conquest founded on racism. Yet for a writer from an ex-colony to turn down the chance to study or teach in the US might well be artistic suicide. In such ways do the colonisers suborn the colonised. Gikandi, who argued that it was only through modernism that post-colonialism succeeded in finding a means of expression, is a professor at Princeton. Modernism was employed during the cold war as a convenient lever to prise post-colonial writers away from “committed” literature. Soyinka was right in arguing that pigmentation couldn’t be the basis of a literary autonomy, but at the same time isn’t it true that many colonial writers have been more or less forced or at least seduced into compromise with the system which colonised them?  

CIA funding of the CCF was exposed in 1967. One result was increased influence for the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association,  one of the Soviet Union’s major means of cultural influence during the cold war. Kalliney points out that many writers switched easily from being promoted by the CIA to being given a leg up by the KGB. Perhaps this says more about the ambition and lack of principle of writers than about the nature of over-weening States.  

World literature, Kalliney comments, from a certain point of view, looks like a racket. The essential point is that writers are always working in specific conditions. Literature is never autonomous in the sense that it can break free from that. If the powerful (who are always rich) believe what is being written is making a difference to what’s in people’s heads, they won’t sit by. Richard Nixon remarked, “Stay away from the arts, they are Jewish and left-wing”, probably, with some minor modification, a widespread view on the American right. Between 1918 and 1975 the Soviet Union, through its Progress publishing arm, issued four thousand books by Afro-Asian writers, totalling some hundred and sixty-five million copies. That wasn’t because the Politburo loved literature. It was a literary racket. Alex La Guma’s audience was almost certainly mostly Soviet and Eastern bloc. A readership is a readership, but there’s a heavy irony in writers struggling against colonialism being favoured by Stalinists.  

Eileen Chang’s Naked Earth was written under the supervision of the United States Information Agency. Kalliney points out that its protagonists are caught between Japanese imperialists, the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party. Perhaps this is an accurate depiction of the fate of the common people of poor countries, buffeted between the forces of money on the one hand the State on the other, unable to attain real autonomy. Kalliney believes Chang’s work wasn’t deeply altered by her sponsorship by and working for the USIA. This may be true, but we’ll never know how different it might have been had she not been allied. She was useful because of her experience of and opposition to communism, but she was no reduced propagandist. Her fiction tends to focus on the everyday experience of the common folk. Was she an example of State sponsorship, behind which there was ideological intent,granting a writer the means to exceed what that sponsorship intended? Maybe, but the lurking State power can never be anything but sinister. Mark Wollaeger may have a point that fiction and propaganda in the modern world are “secret sharers” but the former, at its best, is honest, the latter always manipulative. 

James Smith, in British Writers and MI5 Surveillance 1930-1960, cited by Kalliney points out that once-dissident writers under surveillance became “useful cogs”. The security services were adept at co-opting once-awkward figures. Spender, of course, edited Encounter, but he was never anything but a fellow-traveller. Like Auden, who admitted it, he was incorrigibly middle-class. The same is true of C Day-Lewis. Orwell is a different matter. He risked his life for the Spanish Revolution (the sole, if brief, example of a society functioning without either capitalism or the State) and was never anything but a socialist. Yet his socialism was deeply suspicious of the State, to some extent at least because of what he’d seen in Spain. The early pages of Homage to Catalonia show how impressed he was by what the anarchists had achieved in Barcelona. In an important sense, that became his touchstone: he believed in egalitarianism but not the coercive power of the State. He was himself subject to secret service surveillance. The list of names he sent to Celia Kerwan of the Information Research Department (set up by the Labour government to counter Soviet propaganda) on 6th April 1949 after her visit to him in the sanatorium in Cranham, is seen as treachery, especially by members of the Communist Party; but in perspective, Orwell was suggesting that the people named might not be the best to write or broadcast for the IRD and he included comments on them which, in some cases, attenuated their inclusion. He wasn’t handing radicals over to the secret services or suggesting they should be subject to surveillance; he was merely passing on in confidence a list of those he thought potentially dubious contributors to the IRD programme. His concern, a sensible one, was to resist Soviet distortions. It should be remembered also that he was terminally ill and would be dead eight months later. Important too to set this incident within the scope of his achievement which was to render complex ideas accessible to the common folk. Orwell was always an enemy of the high-falutin’ intellectual whose work, usually ponderously theoretical, excluded all but experts (take a brief look at literary structuralism for a good example). He wrote from partisanship for the common people and in a prose of clarity unequalled in his time or since.  

Doris Lessing was under surveillance for two decades, not, it seems, principally because she was a CP member for a time, but for her anti-racism. She remarked that the most valuable people in any society are its trouble-makers. Kalliney examines the content of the black notebook from Lessing’s famous novel, pointing up Anna’s difficulties in rendering her experience of colonialism. When she looks back on some of her own writing, she finds it full of nostalgia, but for what? There is a suggestion here that those who aren’t the victims of colonialism reach a block when they try to write about it. Lessing was anti-colonialist and anti-racist but her experience set her apart from their victims. Her parents weren’t wealthy, but they were white in racist Rhodesia, she was sent to a private Catholic school; in others words was essentially privileged. Her possibilities for getting to know and work with black anti-colonialists in Rhodesia were slim. Kalliney comments that her influence on the anti-colonial movement was “negligible”. All the same, she was a person of interest. Perhaps indicative of just how paranoid power is. Lessing came to believe that the intelligence agencies gave rise to an opposition which used the same tactics and which, she thought, could be the germ of a new society. Kalliney oppose this to the “paranoid” style, in Hofstadter’s sense,  of Orwell, Muriel Spark and Thomas Pynchon. This seems rather cavalier: Hofstadter was writing about the nature of US politics, and to be wary of totalitarian propaganda is not paranoia. Kalliney sees Lessing’s adoption of science-fiction, or space fiction, as an expansion of her creative possibilities, but it may well be more of an admission of defeat: the genre is characterised by escapism, however much it may touch here and there on contemporary social reality.  

In 1983 Audre Lorde wrote “Grenada Revisted: An Interim Report”. She had been under FBI surveillance. Her mother was Grenadian. The October invasion was condemned as a “flagrant breach” of international law by the UN in a vote of 108 to 9 on 2nd November 1983. Even Thatcher opposed  it privately but in public showed the customary cowardice in refusing to stand up to US foreign policy (more the rubber doll than the iron lady). Kalliney writes briefly of Lorde  but much more of Claudia Jones and C.L.R.James. She was a loyal member of the CP, which he despised. James was a socialist, but like Orwell, loathed the communist dictatorship and the lies which sustained it. Kalliney argues that the experience of being watched over contributed to the development of anti-colonial literature by Caribbean writers or as he puts is “diaspora facilitates a desire for national culture under certain conditions”. 

Jones was a proponent of intersectionality, a fancy term for the fact that people often suffer multiple forms of disadvantage and discrimination. The problem with such terms is that they reek of the seminar room; they are fine for academic essays but more or less useless as a way of speaking to the common people about the problems they face. This is not to suggest the common folk aren’t intelligent. On the contrary, they are perfectly intelligent enough to recognise the difference between clear thinking and speaking and jargon. Intersectionality is a piece of jargon. It’s unnecessary, because people understand easily how the odds are stacked against them in many ways.  

Jones was prosecuted under what Kalliney calls the Smith Act of 1918, probably in fact the Sedition Act, a charming piece of legislation which defends the first amendment by denying free speech to those critical of US capitalism or State. Interestingly, in compiling her dossier the FBI relied heavily on the work of librarians and archivists, a nice example of how seemingly benign activities can be suborned. What Kalliney is driving at in his discussion of Jones, James and others, is that national liberation can be served by cultural activities. Jones, of course, was the moving force behind the Notting Hill Carnival and wrote a famous essay included in the souvenir guide to the first event: “A People’s Art Is the Genesis of Their Freedom.” A neat summary of part of the underlying thesis of this book.  

CLR James rejected the glib characterisation of colonised peoples as backward, seeing them rather as an avant-garde, ahead of the metropolitan radicals of the colonising societies in the obvious sense that their interest lay in a subversion of the world order. By way of Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel and his negative view of the alienated, inwardly-obsessed anti-hero of modernism in contrast to his perspective on the “epic” hero who is representative because part of an homogenous society, Kalliney considers James’s curled lip in response to modernism. He viewed The Waste Land, Journey to the End of the Night, A La Rercherche du Temps Perdu and works of a similar stripe as representative of the decadence of capitalism. Produced by snobs and self-regarding bohemians, they lack humanity and wallow in the self-pity of the supposedly alienated intellectual. James thought European civilisation doomed. He is persuasive on both counts: modernism has given expression to an emotionally empty, reactionary sensibility; so-called bohemians are all too often simply immature people excusing their bad behaviour ( as Flaubert explores in L’Education Sentimentale) and the conquest and racism on which modern Europe was built have left it floundering between pride in its wealth and failure to find a new way of being. It’s interesting that James occupies a relatively peripheral position in modern literature. He may have written only one novel, but the rest of his work, including Beyond a Boundary which Arlott considered the best book on cricket (though it’s about much more), deserves to be studied as among some of the best prose of the twentieth century.  

Kalliney discusses Koestler, the status of Darkness at Noon as a book about collective struggle, and the author’s relationship with PEN. Interestingly, some years after the event, Koestler was still spreading the lie that the passengers on the Patria blew themselves to bits in Haifa harbour in 1940. Koestler’s commitment to truth-telling was tested over this event and failed. He may have founded the Fund for Intellectual Freedom to support writers exiled by totalitarian regimes, but he was purblind when it came to the totalitarianism of the brand of Zionism which founded an exclusively Jewish State. Kalliney claims that Rubashov, the central figure of Koestler’s famous novel, has the ability to recognise the perspective of others; something lacking in Koestler when those others were Palestinians.  

Colonialism, Kalliney says, produced a culture of vice and luxury among Europeans. The luxury was concentrated in few hands domestically, but comparatively the common people of Europe have done better for a long while than colonised people, hence the endurance of European racism and xenophobia. It wouldn’t be surprising if that culture of relative vice and luxury combined with a propaganda system which never sleeps produced a stupefied and infantilised culture. The point made at the start of this review, that States don’t trouble over serious culture any more, makes the point. The commercial interests do the work for them. That popular culture is part of the propaganda system is too obvious to need stating. How far have the security services been involved in this? In a way, the question is immaterial. What matters is the successful spread of mindlessness. That’s what the cultural cold war was about. Huge amounts may have been spent to promote abstract expressionism or Beat poetry or whatever else the spooks thought would undermine Soviet socialist realism and therefore any alternative to US capitalism, but this was never a commitment to the best in the human mind: it was a cheap ploy to defeat an enemy. That Soviet totalitarianism deserved to be defeated is beyond question but the means matter. To promote the best of European or US culture in a genuine, honest way would have been utterly different from the machinations we know about. It would have meant, for example, taking seriously the criticism of the American Dream in Arthur Miller or Richard Yates. It would have entailed acknowledging that the opponents of capitalism had a point which should be taken seriously. The misuse of culture for tendentious political ends has brought us to where we are: a culture where the average person has no idea why Sophocles is better drama than Friends, or J.S.Bach a better musician than Bruce Springsteen, and has no idea that they have no idea. That is an astonishing success of the propaganda system.  

Soyinka remarked: “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny”. That’s an awful lot of walking corpses. Fanon believed that only in the Third World was it possible to redefine humanity. If people are to stand up to tyranny, they have to know what it is and imagine the alternatives. If there is to be a reformed humanity which shakes off its past of conquest based on racism in pursuit of lucre, it will require the contribution of the best minds to help create it. What chance of free artistic expression when culture can be co-opted in defence of wealth and power? The conundrum is that the desired artistic freedom will arrive only when we have dismantled the culture which makes it impossible. In the meantime, we must act with our eyes open: our culture is marinated in propaganda for the rich and powerful and the space for anything different is very small.