Authoritarian Discourse in Civil Society: Notes from the Congress for Cultural Freedom

Tom Shillam

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.[1] 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

gandhi statue
Gandhi Statue in Parliament Sq, London (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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.[2]

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’.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.

References

[1] The British Labour Party is a rare exception: https://www.opendemocracy.net/jon-cruddas-response-to-michael-sandel

[2] 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).

[3] Denis de Rougemont, ‘Looking for India’, Encounter (October 1953), 36-42.

[4] Laurens van der Post, ‘The Dark Eye in Africa’, Encounter (October 1955), 5-12.

[5] 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.

[6] Scott-Smith, The Politics of Apolitical Culture: Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

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Empire and the articulation of fascism: The British Union of Fascists, 1932-1940

By Liam Liburd

The legacy of the British Empire left indelible marks on the political, social and economic fabric of Britain. This was as true on the political margins as in the mainstream and was no different for Britain’s most prominent fascist movement, the British Union of Fascists (B.U.F.). The experience of the British Empire, either first-hand or vicariously, influenced the B.U.F.’s articulation of their fascism.

Founded in 1932 by Sir Oswald Mosley and outlawed in 1940, the organisation wanted a British Empire reborn along fascist lines. In the words of the title of Mosley’s 1932 book

Sir_Oswald_Mosley,_6th_Bt_by_Glyn_Warren_Philpot
Sir Oswald Mosley, 6th Bt (1925, Glyn Warren Philpot)

—essentially the manifesto of the movement— the B.U.F. wanted to build a Greater Britain.[1]

Many prominent members of the organisation had encounters with the Empire. William Joyce (the infamous ‘Lord Haw-Haw’) spent his early years in Galway where his associations with the local Black and Tans eventually led to him fleeing the country in December 1921. Similarly, A. K. Chesterton was born in South Africa and grew up in a ‘racially stratified’ white settler community.[2] J. F. C. Fuller had fought in the Boer War and both he and Francis Yeats-Brown spent a number of years serving India. Beyond these examples, a glance at the profiles of the men and women who served as prospective parliamentary candidates for the B.U.F. shows that those with imperial careers —tea planters, colonial administrators and such— were drawn to the movement.

Alongside those with direct experience of Empire were those who had come into contact with the imperialism that permeated British popular culture particularly during the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Stories of imperial heroes were retold in history lessons, plays, music-hall acts and even pantomime. The B.U.F. maintained this tradition, worshipping imperial heroes in their periodicals.

The imperial heroes of legend became the masculine model for the B.U.F.’s ‘new fascist man’. They considered the men of their movement as the reincarnation of imperial pioneers like Sir Francis Drake and Clive of India.[3] Their fascism would mean the rule of the ‘true aristocrat’; the best kind of man because of his character and abilities.[4] Again based on pioneers like Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, this ‘true aristocrat’ was classless and above sectional interest, struggling only in the interests of Britain.

The B.U.F.’s enemies such as the ‘Old Gang’ politicians, socialists and pacifists were all compared unfavourably with the ‘Empire Builders’ they wished to emulate.[5] Next to these ‘rough men’, the others were painted as effeminate, indecisive and treacherous.

The B.U.F. expressed their vehement opposition to Indian nationalism in terms of this imperial masculinity, and when discussing India regurgitated almost unreconstructed the colonial hierarchies of race. When B.U.F. members wrote or spoke of India they employed the language of martial race theory dating back to the 1857 Indian Mutiny. This theory ordered the various ethnic groups of India according to how many qualities they shared with the ‘manly Englishman’. For the B.U.F., the culprits behind Indian nationalism were Western-educated Bengali Hindus. The latter were at the bottom of the martial race scale, referred to by the epithet ‘effeminate babus’.[6]

The B.U.F. made extensive use of this racist colonial stereotype to oppose independence and to advocate fascist leadership of India. For them, an independent India would be a

Clive
‘Clive of India’ was one of the imperial ‘pioneers’ admired by men of the BUF.

country of docile people run by effeminate and cunning ‘Babu lawyers’.[7] They argued that, culturally and psychologically, Indians were better suited to an authoritarian ruler than they were to democracy. In the B.U.F.’s vision of a fascist future, India was to be governed not by way of negotiation and concession, but in the strong and decisive style of the ‘Empire Builders’.

The history of British imperialism was also used to frame the B.U.F.’s support for the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in October 1935. The invasion was discussed in terms of a colonial rebellion in need of quelling. Abyssinians were not simply repelling an invasion but, in the eyes of the B.U.F., were ‘Black Murderers’.[8] A. K. Chesterton described the action taken by the Italians as ‘the heroism of Empire warriors’.[9] Mussolini’s actions were compared with Kitchener’s reconquering of the Sudan in the 1890s and both were found to be simply ‘put[ting] down slavery and barbarism with a strong hand’.[10] The Abyssinia crisis was portrayed as part of an ongoing race war, the fulfilment of the white man’s imperial ‘Destiny’. In this conflict, William Joyce asserted, fascism represented the defender of white civilization against the ‘Oriental and African barbarian’.[11]

Imperialism was not simply a past glory for the B.U.F.; it was a political model for the future. One fascist described the ‘direct object of fascism’ as the revival of ‘the pioneering spirit upon which the magnitude of the British Empire is founded’.[12] From stories of Britain’s imperial past, such as the exploits of Clive of India, as well as from the direct experience of Empire some of their number possessed, fascists took two lessons.[13] One was that imperialism worked best where a suitable person was appointed and given a free hand. And the other, that mistakes were down to the inference of elected party politicians. British imperialism became an object lesson in the qualities of fascist leadership when compared with its democratic counterpart.

Roger Griffin has written of fascism as one of a number of anti-Enlightenment ideologies seeking to give birth to an ‘alternative modernity’.[14] The B.U.F.’s use of the language of imperialism shows that they sought an alternative modernity based on their conception of British imperialism. In imperialism they saw a model of masculinity and a system of government that was anti-liberal, authoritarian, white supremacist and aggressively nationalistic. In short, they saw reflected in Britain’s imperial past their imagined fascist future.

The relationship between Britain’s far-right and the British Empire casts further light on the nature of fascist ideology and is an area ripe for study. The study of the far-right, a collection of nationalistic and racist movements, necessitates an examination of the engagement of these movements with the British Empire, an important aspect of both British nationalism and racism.

Liam Liburd received a BA in History and Sociology from the University of Sheffield, before going on to complete an MA in Modern History. Liam is now in the first year of a PhD, also in Sheffield, exploring constructions of race, gender and empire on the extreme Right in Britain from the 1920s to the 1960s. He has previously written blogs for History Matters, and was heavily involved in the organisation of the ‘Gendering Peace’ conference which took place in Sheffield earlier on this year. Find Liam on twitter @Liburd93

References:

[1] The phrase itself has imperialist roots, originating in the 19th century, as the title of a popular 1868 book by Charles Dilke. It became a shorthand term for the Empire and the imperial ideal.

[2] D. Baker, Ideology of Obsession: A. K. Chesterton and British Fascism (London; New York, 1996), pp. 24-25.

[3] O. Hawks, ‘Revolution is a National Characteristic’, Blackshirt, 87 (December 21, 1934), p. 6.

[4] A. Raven Thomson, ‘Aristocracy of Worth’, Fascist Week, 13 (February 2-8, 1934), p. 4.

[5] “Lucifer”, ‘Pink Dreams in a Yellow Jacket – Sobbing Away the Empire: The Intellectual Noxiousness of Bloomsbury Socialists’, Fascist Week, 2, (November 17-23, 1933), p. 7.

[6]M. Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali’ in the late nineteenth century (Manchester; New York, 1995), p. 2.

[7] T. Lang, ‘The Albert Hall Rally’, Blackshirt, 101 (March 29, 1935), pp. 1, 2, 5.

[8] E. D. Hart, ‘The Bleating Wolf of Ethiopia: Britain’s Press Pets’, Action, 11 (April 30, 1936), p. 7.

[9] A.K. Chesterton, ‘The End of a Stupid Story – Let Eden Follow Selassie’, Action (12, May 7, 1936), p. 11.

[10] A.R.T., ‘With Kitchener to Khartoum’, Action, 2 (February 28, 1936), p. 3.

[11] W. Joyce, ‘The Forces of Darkness Arrayed Against Fascism’, Blackshirt, 119 (August 2, 1935), p. 2.

[12] J. Rudd, ‘Fascism’s Mission to British Youth, Blackshirt, 75 (September 28, 1934), p. 6.

[13] E. D. Hart, ‘Men Who Built the British Empire: A Survey of the Great Colonists’, Action, 65 (May 15, 1937), p. 9.

[14] R. Griffin, ‘Studying Fascism in a Postfascist Age – From New Consensus to New Wave?’, Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies, 1 (2012), p. 15.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: Glyn Warren Philpot [Public domain], currently at NPG London, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Francis Hayman [Public domain], currently at NPG London, via Wikimedia Commons