Unreliable comrades: writers and the Cold War

Writers—both communist and anti-communist—rarely toed the party line
January 28, 2020

Hastening through New York sometime in the late 1950s, the Marxist critic Isaac Deutscher was approached by a news-vendor, who pressed a paperback copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four into his hands: “You must read it sir. Then you will know why we must drop the atom bomb on the bolshies!” It is not known whether Deutscher bought the book. But this odd little vignette reveals something of the way in which the international power politics of the pre-Kennedy era were being played out literally at street level, the responses stirred in ordinary people and the tools—in this case a bestselling novel weaponised by the CIA—employed to shunt politics into the public imagination.

If newspaper headlines tend to suggest that the Cold War was a clash of binary opposites—democrat versus tyrant, liberty versus oppression, Eisenhower versus Khrushchev—then from the angle of cultural politics, the view was always that much more occluded: a matter of confusion and equivocation, often extending into downright duplicity. It was all very well signing up to be a Cold Warrior, to borrow the title of Duncan White’s compendious new book. What you next had to establish was whether your notional allies shared your views; what they might be concealing behind their ideological skirts; whether, in fact, they were your allies in the first place.

Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War by Duncan White (Little, Brown, £25)

Post-war political memoirs are full of this kind of hoodwinking. Michael Foot, a young MP in the 1945 intake, used to say that the greatest difficulty facing a Labour -backbencher lay in working out precisely where some of your shiftier parliamentary colleagues stood. A left-wing yet democratic socialist? A Marxist masquerading as a moderate? A crypto-Stalinist? At the dawning of the Attlee government it was hard to tell. It has of course been alleged—by Oleg Gordievsky, a Russian agent working for the British—that Foot himself was in the pay of the KGB, something that Foot angrily denied. In much the same way, Orwell’s first biographer Bernard Crick once told me about a conversation he had around this time with the sister of the Labour MP Ian Mikardo. “Of course, Mik’s got two cards,” she confided, thereby revealing that her brother was secretly a member of the Communist Party as well as Labour.

Anthony Powell’s novel Books Do Furnish a Room (1971), set in the bitter winter of 1946-7, recreates Foot’s confusion in the person of the newly-elected Labour MP Kenneth Widmerpool. Ideologically, Widmerpool proves impossible to pin down. “From time to time I detect signs of fellow-travelling,” the novel’s journalist Lindsay Bagshaw observes. “Then I think I’m on the wrong tack entirely, he’s positively right-wing Labour. Again, you find him stringing along with the far, but anti-communist, left. You can’t help admiring the way he conceals his hand.” Bagshaw’s final judgment—one that might easily apply to several of the hand-concealing subjects of Cold Warriors—is that Widmerpool is “playing ball with the Comrades on the quiet for whatever he can get out of it, but trying to avoid the appearance of doing so.”

In trying to reproduce the atmosphere in which these attitudes were forged, White’s deft and wide-ranging book is a study in complicity, of inches given and received, of dogma subverted by individualism, caprice or—at times—sheer bloody-mindedness. It is also a study that begins before the Cold War’s formal inauguration in the late 1940s. As he reminds us, the Soviet Union alighted on the value of literary propagandising many years before the west, and the Communist International (Comintern) was making its presence felt in the 1920s. Here, though, something resembling a binary opposition does declare itself. While the east believed in infiltration—convincing writers that their (and the Soviet Union’s) interests were best served by joining local Communist parties—the west was keener on the inspirational power of unmediated print. Hence the spectacle, in the spring of 1955, of the CIA organising balloon-drops of Orwell’s Animal Farm over the Polish border.

White’s locus classicus is Civil War Spain. It was here that Orwell, who had made the mistake of joining a Trotskyist militia rather than the Marxist International Brigades, found himself on a Soviet death-list and narrowly escaped over the border into France with his life. Arthur Koestler ended up on death row in a Nationalist prison, where one night he heard the priest bidden to visit condemned men mistakenly rattle his door handle. As White shows, these experiences had both an immediate result—in the shape of Koestler’s Spanish Testament (1937) and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938)—and a kind of delayed fuse effect. It was in Spain that Orwell first came up against totalitarian propagandising, read accounts of battles that had not taken place and troops condemned for cowardice who he knew had fought bravely—all of which shaped the media manipulations imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

A month before that book was published, Orwell sent the Foreign Office’s International Research Department (IRD) a list of 35 -fellow-travellers he suspected of Communist sympathies. White chastises Orwell for this “surprising act of complicity,” but that seems a bit harsh. It’s true that one or two of Orwell’s selections could be put down to paranoia. On the other hand, it would have been worth White enlarging on the very difficult circumstances in which Celia Kirwan, Orwell’s contact at the IRD, was forced to operate. Her brief, after all, was to commission pamphlets for distribution in Communist countries in Eastern Europe—this at a time when the IRD itself had been infiltrated by the extreme left. The colleague sitting next to Kirwan as she went about this task was none other than the Soviet spy Guy Burgess.

“It was in Spain that Orwell first came up against totalitarian propagandising”

As White’s trail begins to wind on to Graham Greene’s adventures in Malaya and Vietnam, to the Kremlin’s efforts to anaesthetise Soviet dissidents such as Babel, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, another of his themes begins to declare itself. This is the extreme difficulty that all writers, whether of right or left, have in accommodating themselves to a party line or sticking to any prescription that limits their room for manoeuvre. One can clearly see this in Hemingway’s exploits in continental Europe after the fall of France. As a known Communist sympathiser, he was given the Moscow Centre code name Argo. “How seriously Hemingway took this is not known,” White drily glosses. Allied intelligence, also bent on adding this distinguished cultural paladin to their ranks, had -similar doubts. “We may be wrong,” an internal report concluded, “but feel that, although he has conspicuous ability for this type of work, he would be too much of an individualist to work under military supervision.”

For the African-American novelist Richard Wright, the problem lay in the suspicion, hardening into certainty, that the racial equality preached by the Communist Party concealed shibboleths that would end up restricting his freedom as a writer. Wright began by assuming that “the warning about the Soviet Union’s trouble with intellectuals… simply did not apply to me,” only to be ticked off for liking “bourgeois books” by modernists like TS Eliot and James Joyce. Disillusioned with a Party that considered him a “smuggler of reaction,” he was equally appalled by the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s: “There is more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States of America,” he eventually decided.

Cold Warrior contains several pivotal moments in which writers’ autonomy is either edged aside or, alternatively, leads to a decisive shift in the wider political terrain. One of them comes in October 1945 and the appearance of Orwell’s prophetic Tribune essay “You and the Atom Bomb,” which, in forecasting a long-drawn out hegemony of territorial blocks kept in place by the threat of nuclear war, established the context of the developing Cold War.

Another is a highly effective chapter in which White ranges over Solzhenitsyn’s career between 1968-74 to consider both the détente that had begun to affect east-west relations in the later 1960s, and also the damage that a solitary maverick could wreak on governments of either side. In 1962, a thaw in Soviet attitudes to dissident writers had seen Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich sell nearly 200,000 copies in book form and another 750,000 in the Russian literary magazine Roman-Gazeta. By 1968, hard at work on Cancer Ward as the Soviet tanks headed into Czechoslovakia, Solzhenitsyn was aware that much of this licence would now be denied him. At the same time, the concentration of media interest and world opinion meant that the Politburo hesitated to make an example of him: the Gulag, to put it starkly, was no longer an option. In 1958, the authorities had bullied Boris Pasternak into declining the Nobel Prize. Solzhenitsyn’s award in 1970 was harder to gainsay, and the writer himself a much more awkward customer.

Once the authorities decided to deport him to western Europe, Solzhenitsyn turned out to be one of détente’s most convinced opponents. But neither was he impressed by western popular culture: he wrote off Hollywood and rock and roll as “manure.” As White notes, “being an enemy of the Soviet Union did not necessarily make him a friend of the west.” Visiting Washington in the summer of 1975, he was at first invited to the White House, and then disinvited, by Gerald Ford. If Solzhenitsyn had managed to leverage his fame, then his cross-border transfer hardly amounted to a victory for the Free World.

White ends his mammoth enterprise in 1993, four years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, with another Cold War writer—John le Carré—returning to Yeltsin’s Moscow to have his worst fears confirmed about the dark path down which post-Soviet Russia was going. He quotes George Smiley’s aphorism about “the right people losing the Cold War and the wrong people winning it,” reminding us that this is a story of “what happens when writers resist, when they fight back…” Le Carré has in his subsequent novels become an excoriating critic of the west’s War on Terror.

This substantial book still leaves out some important writers. In particular, White could have developed his chronicle to take in those British and American novels that, though not specifically framed as “Cold War” novels, operate in its substantial shadow. In this framing, Powell’s Books Do Furnish a Room, parts of which take place in the offices of the left-wing monthly magazine Fission, is just as much a Cold War novel as Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), and so is Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange (1983), set in the imaginary yet highly plausible Eastern European state of Slaka. Powell, Bradbury, Piers Paul Read and Kingsley Amis are all Cold War warriors in their fashion, and the conflict’s implications for their art could often reveal itself in unexpected ways.

The second volume of Powell’s Journals, for example, covers a discussion with his literary agency’s foreign rights specialist about a proposed Polish translation of his 12-novel series A Dance to the Music of Time. Powell is told of the apparent “impossibility” of mentioning the Katyn massacre of Polish officers by Russian troops in volume nine, The Military Philosophers (1968). The author, though allowing the difficulty of preserving “passages Communists find politically embarrassing,” is determined to keep it in. Solzhenitsyn and Le Carré may have been operating on the Cold War’s main literary battlefields, but some of the skirmishes fought on the Home Front were no less sharply contested.