Thursday, 29 August 2013

Of Treason, Subversives, Propaganda, Anti-Communism and Anti-anti-communism…

Some of you may wish to skip today's entry: those of you who read me in search of thrills and spills, because I'm just going to drone on about yesterday's conference. I thought it very exciting indeed, but apparently not everybody is shaken to the marrow by discussions about forgotten literary periodicals and the like. I know, hard to believe, but it takes all sorts to make a world.

So, I'm back from a couple of days in London, visiting the British Library's Propaganda exhibition and attending a conference on Anti-Communism: Culture, Literature, Propaganda in the rather wonderful Deco Senate House at the University of London. After working on Clearing – important but frankly not exciting – it was great to spend a couple of days listening to thinkers I respect showing me how little I know even about my own field!

The British Library exhibition was fascinating, though flawed. It took the line that propaganda is a neutral concept, and presented material from a range of cultures, organisations and historical periods. I did think that it treated the British Empire with kid gloves and was therefore ironically propagandist itself, and that the range of texts should have included a lot more literature and film (no Casablanca?), but what they did have was fascinating.

The first item was this 'educational' film from 1949: it makes some important points but it has, to put it kindly, some ideological flaws. An interesting curio, nonetheless:

I also liked the prescience of this (rather hypocritical) Soviet poster entitled 'Freedom, American-style', accusing the United States of being a surveillance state, by Prokorov:

Frank Capra's Why We Fight is also a fascinating piece of Allied propaganda:

I also loved the propagandist fashions: lovely silk Jaqmar scarves from WW2 decorated with posters such as 'loose lips sink ships', Fougasse cartoons, and of London maps marked with bombed historic buildings. 

Rather wittily, the exhibition was liberally sprinkled with video clips of Alastair Campbell discoursing on propaganda without the slightest acknowledgement that he might be viewed as a (rather obvious, dishonest) propagandist in any way. The other good thing was the total absence of that monstrous cliché, the Keep Calm And Carry On poster, originally produced for the event of a German invasion of the UK. Well done, British Library. 

So that was the entrée to the conference. Anti-communism is a huge cultural field in the post-war period. The CIA was all over the cultural scene, funding arts festivals, artists' tours, concerts, cultural magazines, scholarships and symposia (see Stonor Saunders and Wilford), though not much has been written about the UK security services' interventions into culture, though James Smith, who was at yesterday's conference, has recently published a book on MI5 surveillance of poets and other artistic types. My kneejerk suspicion is that the British security services were too Philistine to devote much energy to Bloomsbury and Co. Drawn from the aristocracy and military, British spooks were at best indifferent to culture as praxis and pursuit: in an earlier age, Arnold despaired of the aristocracy as a bunch of wasters squandering their cultural privileges. In contrast, the US State Department (dealing with foreign affairs) and security services prided themselves on being highly cultured. Hence their keen interest in, for example, abstract expressionism, which they covertly promoted as proof that Western freedom produced great, cerebral art in opposition to the moralising Socialist Realism of the USSR. 

So that's the background to yesterday's symposium, which explored specific currents and examples in the anti-communist movement. David Ayers, for example, discussed the battle between the USSR's supposed universalism (overwhelming ethnic, national and religious difference) and TS Eliot's defence of 'European' values and human individualism. Two academics (Thomas Karshan and Adam Piette) discussed Nabokov's leading role as a literary anti-communist: his father was a liberal minister in the Kerensky government. According to Karshan, Nabokov's literary techniques and subjects, particularly play, self-division, contempt and indifference in his early Russian-language novels counterpoint the programmatic political engagement required by Soviet literary authorities. However, Karshan feels, Nabokov's 'crude, childish determinism' in books like Bend Sinister and Pale Fire demonstrate that he was locked into the forms and concerns of his Communist opponents: he never really managed indifference. 

Matthew Taunton of UEA discussed Brecht's Die Massnahme (in which a young comrade accepts that the revolution requires his own execution) as a way to examine Soviet notions of law and justice, which gradually drove away British fellow travellers such as Stephen Spender (poet and editor of Encounter, scandalously revealed to be a CIA front, which Spender probably knew) and Arthur Koestler (a central cultural figure at the time, later revealed to be a rapist). Those of you following the SWP's appalling treatment of serious rape accusations against a leading cadre might find Taunton's work instructive. 

The second session featured the highly-esteemed Ben Harker (soon to join Manchester University's English department), who discussed the cultural ramifications of the 'Soviet Literary Controversy' (the Party's victimisation of Akhmatova et al) in British intellectual life, taking in Raymond Williams, the Leavisites, Cyril Connolly's prediction of a repressive socialist Britain producing homegrown Socialist Realism and the relationship between art and political engagement, leading eventually to Cultural Studies and the New Left. Some background on British Communist literary culture here

Harker was followed by Nick Hubble's exploration of work by Orwell, Spender, Cornford, Cornforth and Sommerfield, particularly about Spain, as the 30s came to be re-evaluated in the post-45 period. Spender, in particular, scrambled to associate himself with the elitist High Modernists who had refused to explicitly discuss politics in their work, rather unconvincingly. 

After lunch came Debra Rae Cohen from the University of South Carolina. Horrifyingly, she recognised me from a 1930s conference I presented at in Arkansas, 2001. It was my first conference paper and I was frankly awful. But her presentation was utterly fascinating. She spoke about ex-socialist and talented author Rebecca West's journalism and writing on treason, the Atomic Spies trials, her letters, her vocal support for HUAC and McCarthy, and her ongoing conviction that everything that went wrong in her life – including her estranged son's bitter autobiographical novel – were part of a Communist plot to ruin her. She also, fascinatingly, saw celebrity culture as part of a communist media plot to divert the reading public's attention away from the dangers of subversion and brainwashing. 

I didn't think that paper could be rivalled, but Marina MacKay of Durham University was equally fascinating. Speaking on 'Religious Fantasy and Anti-State Allegory in the 1940s', she introduced C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength and Rex Warner's The Aerodrome (which may well have influenced Orwell's 1984) to discuss conservative fears of technocratic British Sovietism turning the country into a conformist dictatorship. I've read The Aerodrome (it's fascinating) but had never even heard of That Hideous Strength. After this paper, I have to read it: it sounds completely bonkers. It's essentially a campus novel in which a sociologist is seduced with promises of 'impact' (a current academic buzzword) into allowing an oppressive UK government to use her ideas to institute a police state. Women, lesbians and sociologists don't come out of it very well, unsurprisingly if you know anything about Lewis. 

Finally in that session came Benjamin Kohlmann from Columbia and Freiburg Universities, who gave a very different case of anti-communism. We'd already discussed plenty of conservative anti-communists, as you'd expect. But Edward Upward, an interesting communist figure though not, it has to be said, a novelist of any talent whatsoever, was what Kohlmann described as Communist Anti-Communist. Despairing of the CPGB's early turn away from serious revolutionary politics, he eventually left the Party for points further left. He became convinced that the real anti-communists were in fact the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain. From this point, the discussion turned to whether the CP's sole source of unity was resistance to anti-communism rather than any serious and positive programme of communism itself. An interesting point, though a long way down the rabbit hole for most of us!

Following Kohlmann, the final session saw Tyrus Miller exploring e. e. cumming's long-standing anti-communism. Having visited the USSR as a socialist, he came back convinced that authoritarian regimes crushed individual spirit, exhaustively explored in Eimi, his experimental travelogue. Oddly, it was one of the few texts mentioned in the course of the day that I didn't order on the spot. He was followed by Adam Piette on Nabokov's Pale Fire, and Petra Rau's examination of travel writing about the USSR, especially Eric Newby's The Big Red Train

As is usual when I attend conferences, I came away inspired, awed, despondent and poorer. Poorer because conference wi-fi + online bookshops + great speakers = rapidly depleting bank account. I dread to think how many books I ordered during the course of the day. Despondent and inspired because hearing all these people speak so brilliantly simultaneously recharges my enthusiasm for my field while making me wonder what I could possibly contribute. 

And so here I am, back at work, refreshed, enthused and with a lot more books to read.

1 comment:

David said...

Great summary and critique for those of us who have not been to see it, thanks. Remember what Noam Chomsky once said, ‘propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state’.