It seems easy, today, to distinguish between progressive and authoritarian political discourse. The battle lines have taken shape in front of us. Strongman leaders and xenophobic demagogues identify ‘immigrants’, ‘Muslims’ and ‘globalists’ as collective enemies. They shut down universities, block NGO boats from saving desperate migrants adrift in the Mediterranean and disappear journalists who don’t agree with them. Organised in political parties, civil society groups, and protest movements, their opponents remain steadfastly supportive of civil liberties and human rights.
But is progressive political discourse constituted by the defence of rights alone? As progressive parties lose electoral support – with few exceptions – across Europe and beyond, it is becoming increasingly clear that bolder strategies and messages of hope are needed to resist authoritarian advancement. Rights we hold dear – which include, for researchers, academic freedoms – might be best maintained by constructing narratives of past, present and future which emphasise their historical importance and future promise.
Protest and civil society movements which attempt this are already having success. ‘Extinction Rebellion’, a new UK-based direct action group focussing on climate change, positions its activism within a longer history of civil rights, suffragette and anti-authoritarian agitation. Thousands gathered in front of Gandhi’s statue in Parliament Square, London on its launch. To have success, movements need narratives, and narratives draw on influences and voices of hope, repurposed for the future. Gandhi is a prime example.
In this venture, I suggest, it is vital to remain critical and reflective about such
influences. Take Gandhi; environmentalists draw on him, but elsewhere, Ghanaian students remove his statue from university campuses, raising attention to the racial slurs he used during his time in South Africa. Voices which civil society movements draw on can – even when raised in favour of an ostensibly progressive cause – subtly exclude, degrade, even oppress certain groups. Clement Attlee is currently enjoying a revival on the British Left – a Prime Minister whose government described early ‘Windrush’ Jamaican immigrants as an ‘incursion’ and did not promote acceptance of them.
My research strongly emphasises the importance of considering these questions. At a conference held in West Berlin in June 1950, a number of well-known liberal and left-wing intellectuals gathered to discuss the threat posed to freedom of cultural expression by Communism. They soon founded a permanent body, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which established offices, produced magazines and arranged conferences across 35 countries and several continents in the 1950s and 1960s. The aim was to forge a new kind of liberal and ‘anti-totalitarian’ cultural criticism which counteracted the appeal of Communist ideology among progressive intellectuals reading CCF magazines and attending CCF conferences.
A number of prominent progressive thinkers on the British Left – such as Bertrand Russell and Stephen Spender – and on the Western Left more broadly, became involved with the project. These thinkers often believed that the freedoms they enjoyed, including freedom of expression and freedom of speech, were linked to the level of individual freedom achieved in Western societies. Human progress followed a democratic capitalist path; certainly, tensions existed, which Western CCF writers suggested might be eased by introducing welfare states, but a basic formula for attaining key freedoms had been worked out in the West.
When turning to the pages of British CCF magazine Encounter, though, it is easy to uncover less than progressive sentiments festering beneath the veneer of liberalism and human advancement. These sentiments often reared their heads in essentialised treatments of the Third World. In the first edition of Encounter, Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont, seeking to ‘find’ India, oozed stereotypes; spiritualism was ubiquitous, and the country was stunted by its ‘primitive’ hierarchy which kept all passive. The ‘profound crisis of India’, inhibiting any advancement towards ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’, crystallised in its failure to ‘rupture with magic’.
Similarly, in October 1955, South African writer Laurens van der Post turned an ostensibly critical eye on prospects for progress and development in Africa. A deeply racialised account ensued. The ‘African’, or the ‘black man’, had endured in a timeless state of ‘natural and innocent society’ until the arrival of the ‘white man’ or the ‘European man’. Now, Africans entered onto the stage of history. Their temperamental quiescence meant that, for some time, they ‘served the white man in a way that is almost too good to be true’ in a moment of ‘hush and suspended indigenous development in Africa’ which carried ‘immense potentiality’. Van der Post believed his account was progressive – he proceeded to critique ‘unenlightened white policy’ in Africa which had destroyed these potentialities of development – but it clearly turned on racist imagery.
Such essentialised depictions had long featured prominently in Western writing. A well-known example regarding India is James Mill, a utilitarian so convinced that wisely formulated laws precipitated human progress that he dismissed the entirety of so-called ‘Hindu’ or Indian civilisation in an 1818 book without ever having visited the country. In the later part of the 19th century, this civilisational thinking became indistinguishable from racialised thinking; white connoted civilisation and progress, black connoted savagery and stasis.
De Rougemont and van der Post are extreme examples, but the same thinking subtly undergirded many Encounter considerations of similar topics. Where a progressive politics might have engaged with Indian and African intellectuals and invited their ideas on what human ‘freedom’ meant and how it might be achieved, a ‘progressivism’ characterised by race exceptionalism predominated.
Indeed, the Western CCF did attempt to bring Indian and African intellectuals, among others, into the fold, but not as independent contributors. They got in contact with intellectuals deemed receptive to a Western liberal and anti-Communist politics, inviting them to organise magazines and conferences on related themes in their home countries. When these intellectuals talked too much about politics – Indian CCF intellectuals frequently drew on their experience of colonialism to challenge the notion that ‘freedom’ was a Western import – they were seen to have gone off script; Western organisers complained and set up replacement magazines.
Not only did the ‘liberalism’ of the CCF’s founders conceal beliefs which were authoritarian in their political implications – if Indian and African societies were uniformly illiberal, it would take a strong and robust state, as Western writers often observed, to change them – it also served unexpected geopolitical ends. The CIA, which sought from the late 1940s to promote the ‘non-Communist Left’ in the US and beyond, found something it approved of in the CCF, covertly funding early meetings and offering further support throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Several historians have suggested this had the effect of taming the more radical and innovative currents within CCF branches whilst strengthening the ‘liberal’ ones examined above; anyhow, a seemingly independent civil society movement was relying on CIA funds.
These points emphasise that anti-authoritarian political and civil society forces are not, by default, progressive, an impression that is easy to gain when one looks at political landscapes today. ‘Liberal’ political languages can exclude and essentialise different groups of people, with authoritarian implications. This is not a problem restricted to colonial history; several professedly ‘liberal’ publications including The Economist have recently welcomed President Bolsonaro of Brazil, suggesting his premiership may do good even whilst openly acknowledging his despicable views. To be a progressive is to constantly consider and reconsider whether one’s own views and those of movements one finds appealing contain exclusionary elements. This helps a truly progressive politics take root against its openly authoritarian counterparts.
Tom Shillam is a PhD student based in the Department of History, University of York, whose research considers the cultural Cold War and decolonisation in 1950s & 1960s South Asia. He is currently looking into early Congress for Cultural Freedom journals published in Britain and India, which reveal intriguing divergences on what ‘freedom’ and ‘authoritarianism’ meant to intellectuals from different political and cultural backgrounds. His broader interests include blogging and public history, which has led to articles for fora such as The Conversation.
 The British Labour Party is a rare exception: https://www.opendemocracy.net/jon-cruddas-response-to-michael-sandel
 Frances Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 1999); Giles Scott-Smith, The Politics of Apolitical Culture: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Political Economy of American Hegemony 1945-1955 (London: Routledge, 2002).
 Denis de Rougemont, ‘Looking for India’, Encounter (October 1953), 36-42.
 Laurens van der Post, ‘The Dark Eye in Africa’, Encounter (October 1955), 5-12.
 Eric Pullin, ‘Quest: Twenty Years of Cultural Politics’, in Campaigning Culture and the Global Cold War: The Journals of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, ed. Giles Scott-Smith, and Charlotte Lerg (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 286.
 Scott-Smith, The Politics of Apolitical Culture: Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).