Saturday, February 24

A new cold war…

2023 was the year that liberalism and more widely, liberal views, ideas, attitudes and values were denied validity from both the left and the right. We also saw – and increasingly heard – the rise and spread of anti-liberal populism whether from the right or the left. This was expressed in various forms of post-liberalism or, alternatively, a new rising Left Conservatism that is now also starting to appear as much in New Zealand as they are on the rise overseas.

In many ways liberalism finds itself in a new Cold War, only this time it is not pitted against an opponent that is the eastern block or communism but rather this is a cold war internal to the West. In this liberalism finds itself fighting a war on two fronts: against the anti-liberal left and, also, against the anti-liberal right. I am reminded of the famous Low cartoon ‘Rendezvous’ in which Hitler and Stalin meet and greet each other over the body of Poland. Today, the free speech and free thought that are central to liberalism are despised and trampled upon from both the anti-liberal left and right, who find a common enemy – and opportunity– in attacking all that liberalism stands – or stood – for.

I want to raise what I know will be a controversial option: Is it time for a new, 21st-century Congress of Cultural Freedom?  Those aware of their Cold War History will remember that the Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF) was established in 1950 to promote and defend a notion of Western cultural freedom against totalitarian regimes and institutions. However, in 1967 it came out that it was one of a number of cultural organizations underwritten and funded by the CIA as part of what was termed the cultural Cold War. Obviously, I am not arguing for CIA or aligned funding, however I do believe there is an increasing necessity to recognize we are in a new cultural Cold War and action needs to be undertaken to support liberalism and liberal society, attitudes, rights and values against the antiliberal left and the antiliberal right.

The first cultural Cold War has been well documented in contrasting ways by Peter Coleman[i] and Frances Stonor Saunders[ii], with a necessary reassessment being undertaken by many others in the attempt to find a middle truth between the two alternative histories. As part of its activities, the CCF published more than ‘twenty prestige magazines’ in an attempt to disabuse the attractions and activities of the Soviet promotion of culture as a Cold War tactic. The CCF recognized that intellectuals, trained to be self-critical, often extended their analysis and criticism to their surrounding society and found it lacking against their ideals. During the depression, and with the rise of fascism, many intellectuals if not converted to communism had become fellow travellers at the very least sympathetic to an alternative critique. This was especially so in Europe and Asia where those intellectuals described as non-aligned were often perceived as open to communist overtures. Encounter became the flagship journal of the CCF, positioning itself as a journal of cultural and societal analysis that critiqued not just the Soviet cultural efforts but also showed a willingness to challenge conservative influences within Western culture.

One of the central concerns of the CCF and Encounter was the rise of and turn to an increasingly nihilistic society seen as laying the West open to the influence of ‘bad faith’. The second constant concern was the consequences of supporting anti-democratic religious institutions and beliefs merely because they were opposed to communism. This was commonly seen as a dangerous alliance, merely serving to undermine moves toward secular, pluralistic democracy. We see strong echoes of both of these concerns today wherein bad faith following and endorsement of antidemocratic religious and political institutions and beliefs are on the rise. In response, Encounter saw itself as a journal of liberal views and opinion, wherein cultural freedom entailed the critique of religious, political and moral conservatism and illiberalism. In this Encounter was situated as a distinctly modern journal, in the legacy of Enlightenment, liberal values.

It is well worth re-reading Encounter because we find continual insights and challenges applicable to our current day situation. For example, in 1953 in the second issue, Nicola Chiaromonte, the Italian writer and leftist activist contributed a guest editorial ‘The Will to Believe’. Chiaromonte’s opening statement claimed ‘Ours is an age of neither faith nor of unbelief. It is an age of bad faith, of beliefs maintained for lack of convictions that are genuine.’ This triumph of nihilism had overtaken both secular and religious belief, resulting in a world of the bad faith of ‘the will to power’ expressed in communism, fascism and nationalism. In the face of such ‘bad faith’, the role of the intellectual is to continually question because their duty is ‘to expose fictions and refuse to call “useful lies” truth. ’Chiaromonte’s critique of ‘bad faith’ and the dangers of its nihilistic alliances with ‘the will to power’ would sit at the heart of the Encounter. Similarly, there were ongoing critiques of religious and political movements that preferred the authoritarian government of left or right to the challenge of secular democracy.

For Encounter the battle against nihilism was part of their Cold War, in that the collapse of belief in progress, democracy and Western society was viewed as laying society variously open to the propaganda of Stalinism and the alternative belief of communism or the retreat into authoritarian Catholicism and right-wing dictatorship. Today, we experience another rise of anti-democratic, anti-liberal and anti-Western movements and beliefs on both the left and right.  We see the rise of the populist authoritarian leader and parties and the populist authoritarian mob and movements, all demanding allegiance to intolerant, antiliberal and often antidemocratic collective thinking and attitudes.

I also want to note  how  in 1955 historian Hugh Trevor-Roper suggested Desiderius Erasmus should be the model for the modern intellectual because of Erasmus’ ability to state the necessity of rationality to both sides involved ‘in an ideological struggle.’ For just as in his own age Erasmus threaded a way between the Pope and Luther, so today, the heirs of Erasmus needed to thread their own way of rationality and toleration. As such, Trevor-Roper’s approval of Erasmus involves two demands upon the modern intellectual. The first is the necessity for the intellectual to critique both sides of the Cold War, while the second is a reminder of the necessity for the intellectual to carve an independent way free from the control and limitations imposed by any religious or political authority. Therefore, Erasmus becomes the model for the Encounter intellectual: rationally assessing and challenging all claims upon his loyalty, standing against all attempts to subdue rationality and toleration in the name of systems, institutions and authority.

I want to suggest that we could do far worse than revisit the model of Erasmus and Encounter in our current Cold War. The 21st-century liberal needs to thread their own critical, informed and independent way through the morass of anti-democratic and antiliberal politics, attitudes, actions and values. For we are involved in a new cultural Cold War and it is increasingly apparent that liberalism needs to be rearticulated and re-argued for what it offers the individual and society in the face of the authoritarian, the anti-democratic and the collectivist demand to conform to illiberal ideas, politics and actions. I say it’s time to stop being apologetic for being a liberal, for we are faced with a resurgent anti-liberal rendezvous.  In response, a new, 21st century Congress of Cultural Freedom – and a new Encounter – are both sorely needed.


[i]  Peter Coleman, The Liberal Conspiracy.  The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Post-war Europe (New York 1989)

[ii] Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: the CIA and the world of arts and letters (New York 1999).

Author