Degeneration Gap

Andreas Huyssen

  • The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War by David Caute
    Oxford, 788 pp, £30.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 19 924908 3

The struggle for cultural supremacy between the Soviet Union and the United States began as soon as Nazi Germany was defeated. Waged primarily in Europe, it came to an end decades before the Soviet Union collapsed. Inside the Soviet Union, cultural and scholarly contact with the West slowly but steadily eroded the ideological cohesiveness of the Soviet elites and by the time The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West in the mid-1970s, Soviet Communism had already lost what little intellectual cachet it had left in Europe.

Both Russian and American culture were warped and disfigured by the contest, however: one side by continuing Stalinist paranoia and a resumption of the purges and cultural repression that had eased during the war years, the other by hysterical anti-Communism and McCarthyite censorship. The half-century of Cold War has left a deep mark, and its ideological fall-out is still with us, though new global political alignments and alliances have emerged.

Postwar Western Europeans used to complain, in the words of one of the characters in Wim Wenders’s film The American Friend, that ‘the Yankees have colonised our unconscious,’ and since the unconscious always harbours desire, the statement betrays perhaps more than the speaker intended to say. The desire for American culture was always deeply ambivalent, and without the American need to build up a national security apparatus during the Cold War, things might have turned out differently. But in the event it was the Cold War itself, and not just the Yankees, that colonised the European unconscious, giving birth to those whom Godard called the children of Karl Marx and Coca-Cola. The ‘psychological warfare’ reached deep into the mentalities, everyday behaviour and expectations of several generations on both sides of the Atlantic. To what extent is the persistent American need to project Feindbilder a residual effect of those four decades? The question is worth asking, since there seems to be so much disagreement about how to assess the Cold War and its culture.

For many in the US, the whole history of the Cold War seems to have vanished, which is not all that surprising, considering most Americans experienced it primarily as a domestic issue. Political knowledge of the world, then as now, was minimal. Even when the nuclear threat was pervasive, it was symptomatic that the Communist menace was imagined on celluloid as an extraterrestrial invasion by Martians or body snatchers. Among those who acknowledge the hold that recent history has on the present, there is remarkably little agreement on the Cold War’s precise beginnings, its trajectory or its afterlife. The reasons for its sudden and unexpected end are still open to debate – except for those who are happy to give all the credit to Ronald Reagan or the pope. Concerning its origins, it is no longer enough either to blame totalitarianism or to demonise the Truman doctrine and George Kennan’s strategy of ‘containment’. More objectionable still are the parallels drawn by Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice between the Cold War democratisation of West Germany and Japan and today’s project of bringing democracy to the Middle East. The only parallel evident at the moment would be along the lines not of democratisation but imperial control.

The end of the geopolitical confrontation between the US and the former USSR has made for politically less loaded assessments of a conflict that was, it now appears, kept cold only with great difficulty. But the cultural Cold War has proved more difficult to assess; no single study can match John Lewis Gaddis’s We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997). Unlike power bloc politics, cultural matters were bound up with local histories, deep-seated traditions and long-standing stereotypes. It is worth asking, indeed, whether there was such a thing as a Cold War culture. Most of the lines of conflict between European high culture and American mass culture, for example, or between Modernism and realism, were already in place in the decades before the war. Anti-Communism in the US was not an invention of the postwar period. And the principal form of Cold War cultural activity – the congresses of the late 1940s and early 1950s – had its origin in the Popular Front, in events such as the Anti-Fascist Writers’ Congress for the Defence of Culture in Paris in 1935. Many of the Cold War’s most active intellectuals – among them, the New York City College Trotskyists Melvin Lasky and Irving Kristol, émigré Russians such as Nicolas Nabokov, and former Cominternists such as Arthur Koestler – had their formative cultural and political experiences back in the 1930s or even earlier, and jumped ship either after the purges or with the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. Given that the US was a latecomer to the European culture wars, it may not be surprising that the notorious American-run Congress for Cultural Freedom mimicked the structure and secretive make-up of a Communist front organisation. The US may have had the bomb first, but in 1945 the Soviets were way ahead in organising radio stations, starting newspapers and getting the theatres up and running again, in Berlin especially. They rapidly asserted their control over Eastern Europe, and made their influence felt in the West through the Communist Parties and their organisations.

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