Nearly 70 years ago, a breed of Democrat sadly lacking in today’s lineup with the quasi-socialist Barack Obama on one side and the admitted socialist Bernie Saunders on the other, formed an uncompromising anti-communist organization called The Congress of Cultural Freedom. Unlike today’s era of NSA intrusions into privacy, in which Nancy Pelosi declared that Americans supported the curtailing of civil liberties in exchange of being “protected” by government surveillance programs, this organization had a civil liberties, even libertarian bent. One of it founders, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, attacked Communism as a totalitarian government which made the individual “the creature of the state;” he also attacked Lenin from a libertarian angle denouncing the Bolshevik leader for exposing “Marxist socialism to the play of…influences which divested it of its libertarian elements.”
Although peopled with conservatives, the actual makeup of the organization was liberal, even socialist. Against those like Schlesinger Jr. who never bought into communism, many were burned by it and brought their knowledge of how it works into the organization, like Arthur Koeslter, James T. Farrell, and Sidney Hook.
The impetus for its founding was the Waldorf Conference (1949) a pro-Soviet gala composed of such fellow travelers as Lillian Hellman,Arthur Miller, and a young Norman Mailer. The thrust of the conference involved blaming “US warmongering” for the Cold War, and calling for peace at any price with Stalin. Playwright Clifford Odets even denied there was any Communist satellites in Eastern Europe,” and “reports of Russian repression was concocted by the US.”
The one-tone conference galvanized liberal and socialist writers into stealing the show. Led by political gadfly Dwight MacDonald and Mary McCarthy, and Sydney Hook, a fervent anti-Stalinist, who despite having the Presidential Medal of Freedom pinned to his chest by President Ronald Reagan, never ceased being a Marxist, this group embarrassed conference members with pointed questions about Soviet repressions.
Appropriately founded in West Berlin in 1950, the group was able to form a flagship magazine Encounter, and established offices in 35 Western countries; but their main purpose was to reach out to anti-Soviet elements behind the Iron Curtain.
Decades later, in the mid-sixties, the Old Left and New Left engaged in “gotcha” journalism by outing the group as funded by the CIA; a kiss of death for the organization for the Agency was at its nadir in public opinion and was portrayed by even liberals as a fascist organization. In point of fact they were correct about its funding. Inspired by the scene-stealing ruckus the group had caused at the Waldorf, the CIA immediately contacted the protesters; and members of the group in the know accepted covert funding (Dwight MacDonald would claim that he suspected where the money came from while Arthur Schlesinger claimed ignorance).
But the group was hardly a fascist front group for sinister CIA machinations. The Congress used much of the funding to establish contacts with anti-communist labor unions behind the Iron Curtain. Members such as Italian socialist Ignazio Silone urged the West “to promote social and political reforms in order to co-op Communism’s still-influential moral appeal.” They weren’t so pro-West as to not criticize American shortcomings such as the Southern repressions of blacks (American anti-communists would criticize such balance). Nor were they tolerant of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Although he did command support from those such as James Burnham, the majority of the group denounced him.
The group never really recovered after its exposure of accepting CIA money by the New Left journal Ramparts and disbanded. But it pioneered the actions of Ronald Reagan and his covert support of the Polish Solidarity Movement in Poland–a strategy that even 80s liberals grudgingly praised.
Seen from the vantage point of today, the group has a bittersweet quality and reminds us that Democrats once upon a time had a libertarian bent, and saw the expansion of civil liberties as worth taking CIA money for.