Writers—both communist and anti-communist—rarely toed the party lineby DJ Taylor / January 28, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…