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.

Perhaps instead of positing one homogeneous Cold War culture, we should speak of the cultural effects of Cold War politics and the nuclear threat. They played themselves out very differently in France, Italy, Germany and the US, and differently again in the Soviet Union as compared to the East European satellites (not to speak of the Third World, which figures peripherally at best in histories of the cultural Cold War). Take the fundamentally different intellectual trajectories of Germany and France. In the 1950s, West German intellectuals were staunch anti-totalitarians, while many in France still admired the Soviet Union; in the late 1960s, French intellectuals became anti-totalitarian as younger Germans rediscovered the charms of Stalin and Mao (the Bonn government, meanwhile, was pursuing accommodation with the East via its Ostpolitik). It’s striking, too, that East European intellectuals have been integrated into French intellectual life since the 1970s, whereas German concerns have remained rather parochial, focused on GDR dissidents and German-German relations.

Furthermore, it isn’t clear why the notion of a cultural thaw should be reserved for the Soviet Union after Stalin. It might also be applied to 1960s America, when the centrist consensus of the postwar period broke up. The protests of the time in the US, as well as in Europe, Japan and Latin America, were a revolt against Cold War culture and ideology, and they inaugurated a transformation of lifestyles and sensibilities that made both the Western conformism of the 1950s and the regulated culture of the Soviet model obsolete. Such differentiated and comparative histories would teach us that current theories of the clash of cultures and civilisations like Samuel Huntington’s or Benjamin Barber’s merely repeat binary Cold War thinking, and have little to tell us about how to deal with cultural difference and conflict in a globalising world.

For all these reasons, there are formidable difficulties in writing a comprehensive cultural history of the Cold War. Several narratives are available, of which the slightest, though not the most illegitimate, is the narrative of democracy triumphant. Dominant in the US and in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it has by now lost a lot of its lustre. Cultural and political fissures have opened up in an expanding Europe, and the US seems to be falling back into cultural isolationism as it pursues global economic and military control.

Conspiracy theory has fuelled a number of narratives popular with the American and European left, most of them focused on the CIA. In 1967, Ramparts and then the New York Times revealed the CIA’s involvement in Cold War cultural activities and sponsorships, and the revelation had insidious effects on the thinking of the New Left. It allowed the anti-totalitarianism of an older generation of intellectuals, including Raymond Aron and Hannah Arendt, to be dismissed as Cold War propaganda. The gap widened between the anti-Communists of the 1950s, many of them disillusioned former Communists such as Koestler, Manès Sperber and Ignazio Silone, and the anti-anti-Communists of the 1960s, and prejudices ossified.

The story has had a long afterlife. In 1974, in Art Forum, Eva Cockroft described American Abstract Expressionism as a ‘weapon in the Cold War’ and nine years later Serge Guilbaut published How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. Such critiques drew on the fact that intellectual Cold Warriors in Europe had coupled radical Modernism with conservative Cold War politics in ways similar to what Partisan Review was doing in the United States. Recent studies of American exhibitions in Europe, however, have demonstrated that until the late 1950s, the painting of the New York School was only hesitatingly shown in Europe, and not received favourably. If it was meant to be a weapon, it backfired. In any case, did the New York School really steal the ‘modern’ from Paris? Paris had already lost its dominant role in avant-garde experiment to Moscow and Berlin after World War One, and even though liberated Paris remained an important metropolis for the arts, it is not bashing the French to point out that there just wasn’t that much to steal in Paris in 1945. Cockroft and Guilbaut’s arguments were effective in challenging orthodox American accounts of Abstract Expressionism as the telos of modern painting, but short-circuited the complicated relationship between political ideology and art. Their theories were tailor-made for Americans in want of ammunition to attack the national security state during and after the Vietnam War, and for European cultural conservatives, of the left and right, who couldn’t deal with the idea that America had produced a powerful high culture that shamed the European image of Americans as crude materialists and cultural philistines.

The irony in this battle over Abstract Expressionism and Modernism is that the Modernist novel, abstract painting and 12-tone music were never really popular either in the free West or in the Eastern bloc. Stalin and his successors censored abstract art, Truman actively disliked it (‘If this is art, I’m a Hottentot’), and George Dondero, a Republican congressman from Missouri, declared that all modern art is ‘communistic’, triggering public charges that abstract paintings were coded maps of American military installations. At that time in Europe, too, it was still common to hear Modernism called decadent or degenerate.

As a young German who benefited intellectually from the secret largesse of the CIA and its affiliates at the time, I’d say it was just as well the agency didn’t publicise its financial support for the export of American Modernism. The events at Germany’s Amerikahäuser, the American Forces Network’s music programmes, sponsored jazz concerts, Hollywood cinema (some of it; not Doris Day), and such journals as Der Monat, were crucial to the democratisation of the country. American cultural imports, which during the Vietnam War came to be denounced as coca-colonisation, enabled the postwar generation to break the spell of cultural nationalism and to challenge the European contempt for American popular culture then still dominant in schools, universities and the media. It allowed postwar Germans to turn from the Volkslied to the blues, from the yodel to bebop, from the waltz to rock’n’roll, but also from Rilke to Whitman, Stifter to Faulkner, and later to Kerouac, Baldwin and Ginsberg. To a significant degree, cultural Americanisation during the Cold War (call it cultural imperialism if you will) gave rise to a lingua franca of modernisation that allowed Western Europe to overcome its deep cultural and political divisions and, in the case of West Germany, to rediscover its own Modernist traditions, which had been repressed under the Nazis and again under GDR socialism.

Nevertheless, the canard that the international success of American Modernism was all due to CIA machinations was resurrected by Frances Stonor Saunders in Who Paid the Piper? (1999). Saunders does an excellent job in tracing the financial and organisational trail left by the CIA’s involvement in cultural politics. She has little to say, however, about the content of the books or magazines that the CIA helped fund, the exhibitions it supported, the concerts it secretly sponsored. Nor is she at all interested in the intellectual exchanges across national borders that journals such as Der Monat, Preuves and Encounter made possible in postwar Europe. Her intention – testimony to a persistent European mindset – seems to be to discredit as many American political and cultural institutions as possible through guilt by association with the CIA. The advantage of this way of thinking in the past was that it absolved intellectuals from having to criticise the Soviet Union, permitting them to put all the blame for the Cold War squarely on the United States. The Soviet Union is gone, but this attitude persists.

David Caute’s narrative in The Dancer Defects is neither triumphalist nor conspiratorial. He tells a sober story of high cultural exchanges and contests subject to a political climate fluctuating between freeze and thaw, crusade and coexistence. Unlike Saunders, he is aware that there were two sides in the Cold War. He pays due attention to Soviet moves in the cultural struggle for supremacy and to cultural repression in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, but he also makes it clear that the US didn’t rely only on market forces to win over reluctant Europeans. Much of Caute’s study is based on newly available archival sources, and he paints a sometimes exhausting picture of the early postwar decades when much of Europe was still open to persuasion, in countries with strong Communist Parties such as France and Italy as well as in post-Fascist Germany; chapters are reserved for Brecht and postwar Berlin, Picasso’s Paris and Prague before 1968.

Caute’s archival achievement is considerable, but he seems to have been overwhelmed by the wealth of material and the difficulty of welding it into a coherent narrative. The division of the book into separate chapters on stage wars and screen wars, music wars, ballet wars and art wars is unfortunate: it leads to unnecessary repetitions and confuses the chronology of events, preventing the boundaries between discrete phases of the cultural contest from emerging clearly.

Caute pays a price for trying to be exhaustive: the material on Hollywood and the HUAC witch-hunts is overfamiliar, while the chapter on Berlin in the immediate postwar years is too thin. There are also regrettable lacunae. Caute might have made more of the Theatre of the Absurd, which appeared ambiguously playful and existentialist in the West but deadly realistic in the East. There is no discussion of the Soviet New Wave films of the 1960s, which criticised Stalin, the personality cult and everyday living conditions in the Soviet Union. No mention, either, of the way in which Soviet criticism of American racism benefited the civil rights movement; to deal with race in the Cold War only via Paul Robeson doesn’t quite do it. More serious, for the book as a whole, is the absence of any sustained discussion of the Western cultural upheaval of the 1960s, which arguably did more in the long run for Western cultural supremacy than any of the official exchanges Caute describes in detail.

It puzzles me that there is no serious discussion of the problem of a post-Fascist culture in Germany, where state-ordained anti-Fascism in the East confronted an anti-Communism in the West whose continuities with Fascism’s anti-Bolshevism were all too clear, thus absolving Germans from having to face their collective past. Caute’s best work is to be found in the chapters on music, ballet and art. The detailed accounts of visits by the Bolshoi in the West or of Balanchine in Moscow, and the descriptions of exhibitions in Paris and Leningrad, London, Berlin, Moscow and New York, make for fascinating reading. The 1959 kitchen debate between Nixon and Khrushchev at the American exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park takes on a different colouring in the context of cultural competition, and shouldn’t be reduced, as it often is, to a debate about consumerist ideology. Caute elucidates a subtle shift in tactics during the 1950s, as the cultural congresses, with their arrays of major speakers from the world of arts, letters and politics, gave way to carefully curated exhibitions that would draw larger audiences. The reciprocal visits of ballet companies, symphony orchestras and theatre troupes were part of this changing picture, as the attempts at direct political and ideological influence of the immediate postwar years were displaced by spectacle and the politics of the image.

Caute announces in his preface that he is keeping back his findings in the fields of fiction, literary criticism, political theory and historiography for a subsequent volume. Perhaps that’s why key events in the constitution of the cultural Cold War, such as the Writers Congress in East Berlin in 1947, the founding gathering of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Berlin in 1950, or Nicolas Nabokov’s 1952 Festival for the Arts in Paris, are made so little of in this one. Recent re-evaluations of the Congress for Cultural Freedom have demonstrated how important its work was for encouraging a European intellectual network of debate, and thus for the aspects of the struggle for cultural supremacy that had to do with transnational institutions.

If Caute had taken literature into account – Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky, and Czech, Hungarian, Polish and East German dissidents from the 1960s on – he would have been able to correct the conspiracy theorists even more incisively than he does. For even though the financial links between the CIA and the Congress for Cultural Freedom are deeply troubling, the congress was to have an important afterlife in the human rights struggles following the Helsinki Accords and the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag novels in the 1970s. This change in the role of the congress marks a broader shift from the politics of high culture to a discourse of rights in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which surely did more to undermine the Communist state than visits by American symphony orchestras.

Caute barely departs from received wisdom regarding the struggle of Western Modernism against Socialist Realism, but his evident dislike of Modernism leads him to suggest that the success of Abstract Expressionism may, after all, be attributed to the Cold War. The thesis doesn’t hold up. The painting of the New York School was canonised only after the hot phase of the Cold War was nearing its end. Caute’s more important insight is that the main intention of US cultural policy was to demonstrate that America, too, had a high culture and not just pop, plumbing and kitchen technology. This was consistently denied in the Soviet Union then, and still is in Europe today. If anything, the Russian self-image was even more high-cultural than that of the majority of Western European countries. The futile attempt to control or even to ban jazz and rock’n’roll in the Soviet Union is evidence of that. For the Americans, high culture, not just Modernism, was the most important battleground for recognition. The Soviet Union exported classical ballet and classical music to prove its superiority: the US sent out Winslow Homer, Gershwin and the Boston Symphony. But in the end it wasn’t high culture that established the cultural supremacy of the US: in classical music and in ballet, the Soviet Union and its East European satellites could more than hold their own. In the long run, it was rock’n’roll, the blues, jazz, movies and the comics that won the culture wars – and won them inside the US as well.

In his introduction, Caute makes the important point, often forgotten in the US, that the Cold War struggle for cultural supremacy took place on shared terrain. Both the Soviet Union and the US claimed the legacy of the Enlightenment and the ‘bourgeois heritage’. Their battle was over the proper understanding of progress, modernisation, equality and freedom, not their rejection. The West’s new enemies operate on very different cultural and political terrain. Western liberalism, in its most ecumenical sense, won the culture war against the Soviet Union, only to be challenged by an anti-liberal surge in the US itself that threatens international co-operation, constitutional guarantees of habeas corpus, the separation of church and state, and the secular rationality of the modern. The Cold War may be history, but the energies that fed the confrontation between the ‘godless Soviet Union’ and ‘god-trusting America’ have now been transferred to the domestic culture war against the effects of the 1960s on the one hand and the global war on Islamist terrorism on the other. We are still in the middle of a simmering war in Iraq, but there are few signs that anybody is thinking seriously about a contest of ideas in the cultural realm. Short-sighted imperial hubris has won the day. The inevitable fall will be all the more painful.