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BOOK REVIEW : A Look at Militant Liberals in the Days of the Cold War

October 25, 1989|JONATHAN KIRSCH

The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe by Peter Coleman (The Free Press/Macmillan: $22.95, 333 pages.)

At last, here is someone who can say it loud: I'm liberal and I'm proud!

"The Liberal Conspiracy" by Peter Coleman is an authoritative history of the so-called Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization of anti-Communist intellectuals who carried the banner of liberal Western democracy during the chilliest years of the Cold War--and then fell apart during the turbulent '60s when it was revealed that the organization had been secretly funded by the CIA.

The title is purely ironic. Coleman is an unapologetic liberal who presents the activists of the congress as heroes whose mission was nothing less than "saving Western civilization."

The congress was a brave dissent to the prevailing intellectual fashions of another era. As early as the 1930s--and especially during the opening years of the Cold War in the 1940s--the Soviet Union undertook the sponsorship of series of international "peace" conferences of writers, artists and scientists. The lonely and estranged intellectuals who embraced the goals and values of the left, but could not bring themselves to applaud the emissaries of Josef Stalin, were left out in the cold.

Starting in 1950, however, the activists of what the author calls "the democratic anti-Communist left" forged a propaganda weapon of their own in the form of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Inspired, founded and led by some of the luminaries of the non-Communist left, the congress sponsored its own conferences and festivals, pamphlets and journals, and international committees throughout Europe and the Third World, all designed to promote and serve a kind of militant liberalism.

Coleman has vividly re-created the passionate ideological debates and the intense political skirmishes that characterized the congress in particular and the postwar intelligentsia.

To his credit, Coleman reports straightforwardly on the controversial CIA connection. The revelations of CIA funding in the late 1960s were enough to kill the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Coleman's book is bound to spark some of the corny old controversies that have filled countless pages of "The Nation" and "The New Republic" over the decades: Is it truly possible to be an intellectual, a progressive, a humanist, and an anti-Communist at the same time? Is the notion of militant liberalism a contradiction in terms?

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