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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.2 (2003) 113-115

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Giles Scott-Smith, The Politics of Apolitical Culture: The Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA and Post-War American Hegemony. London: Routledge, 2002. 233 pp. $90.00.

The Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF) was founded at a conference in West Berlin only hours after news of the North Korean invasion of South Korea had reached the delegates. That dramatic moment is recounted on page 101 of this book, when there are only 65 pages left to go. The sluggish narrative pace of The Politics of Apolitical Culture suggests that the topic is not really the relationship of the CCF to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), from which it secretly received most of its funding. Giles Scott-Smith is more interested in the meaning of "hegemony." The period he covers is one decade—from 1945 to 1955—though the pulse of the CCF could still be detected even after exposés of the CIA's sponsorship of magazines like Encounter had discredited the organization by the end of the 1960s. But Scott-Smith's purpose is to apply the neo-Marxist work of Antonio Gramsci to the projection of American cultural power in Western Europe. He sets out to show how the anti-Soviet policies of the U.S. government were reflected in the presumably independent operations of the life of the mind, and how these policies facilitated the transition from the antifascism that marked the most admirable European intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s to an anti-Communism that would repudiate neutralism and would enlist distinguished philosophers, social scientists, humanists, and artists in the Cold War.

Whether thinkers and creative types who in other circumstances might have prized their detachment and autonomy were updating Julien Benda's trahison des clercs is a problem that the socialist Michael Harrington identified as early as 1955 when he excoriated the American Committee for Cultural Freedom in the journal Dissent. After the CIA funding was revealed, the historian Christopher Lasch amplified that critique in The Agony of the American Left (New York: Knopf, 1969). As recently as 1999 [End Page 113] Frances Stonor Saunders's Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, which Scott-Smith calls "a forthright critique" (p. x), was widely and favorably reviewed. Thus his topic is not exactly new. In such circumstances Scott-Smith might have advanced scholarship by offering a defense of the teaming up of the intelligentsia with an intelligence agency. He might have emphasized how parlous the fate of democracy appeared in the first decade after World War II—a decade in which the most populous country on earth became Communist and allied itself with an immense neighbor that not only was in the grip of a mass murderer with an increasingly paranoid streak but was also running Communist parties that commanded the allegiance of one out of every five voters in France and Italy. Scott-Smith, however, does not offer any gestures of empathy for Western thinkers (or their hidden sponsors), who could not possibly have foreseen how decisively the Soviet Union would lose the Cold War or how eagerly China would eventually embrace capitalism. The Politics of Apolitical Culture admittedly has less of a sting than Harrington or Lasch or Saunders, but—if only by imputation—it accepts what are rather commonplace objections to the role of the CIA in the funding of the CCF. The political perspective that Scott-Smith offers is stale.

Moreover, because the book is nearly two-thirds over before Scott-Smith gets to the formation of the CCF itself, he does not illuminate the otherwise dimly-lit operations and personnel of the organization. Although he draws on archives and interviews, as well as relevant secondary sources, he fails to add significantly to scholarly knowledge of this feature of the cultural Cold War. Comparisons with Saunders's Who Paid the Piper? are inevitable, and they make Scott-Smith's version of similar material...