Cold Warriors by Duncan White review – when novels were weapons

This account of the cultural dimension of capitalism v communism offers a reminder that literature can unsettle the powerful

Arthur Koestler in 1947
‘When Arthur Koestler renounced communism, he wrote his 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, a fictional treatment of Stalin’s purges.’ Photograph: Pat English/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
‘When Arthur Koestler renounced communism, he wrote his 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, a fictional treatment of Stalin’s purges.’ Photograph: Pat English/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
Mon 23 Dec 2019 05.00 EST

It is said that Russia’s imaginative writers are safe from the attentions of President Putin because he believes that literature (unlike TV or the internet) is entirely unimportant. Meanwhile, President Trump’s vision of the US as the world’s greatest nation clearly does not include its greatest writers: was there any presidential response to the deaths of either Philip Roth, last year, or Toni Morrison, more recently? ’Twas not ever thus. Duncan White’s new history of writers’ involvement in the cold war, a big book full of grim case studies, is also a weirdly encouraging reminder that literature can unsettle the powerful. In this account of the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism, covering the half-century from the late 1930s to the collapse of the Soviet Union, writers sometimes seem more influential than politicians, spies or generals.

By “writers”, White means novelists, poets and playwrights. He shows how prominent authors were influenced by the cold war between west and east, but also, more interestingly, how literature was used in that conflict. His is a history of “cultural warfare”. We start in the crucible of the Spanish civil war, where George Orwell and Arthur Koestler first discover the murderous consequences of political ideals, but also the power of fiction to display these. Orwell’s books, banned in Warsaw Pact states, became weapons in the war of ideologies. When he was trying unsuccessfully to get Nineteen Eighty-Four published, the Ministry of Information official who advised Jonathan Cape to refuse Orwell’s novel was in fact a long-standing NKVD agent. It would not be long before the CIA was printing copies of Animal Farm that were light enough to be floated by balloons into eastern Europe.

ANNA AKHMATOVA (1889-1966) Russian poet about 1925.
‘Anna Akhmatova was tormented into a show of compliance by the imprisonment of her son in a gulag.’ Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Meanwhile Koestler, eventually a zealous anti-communist preacher, berating western liberals and leftists for any ambivalence about the Soviet threat, naturally began as a Communist party activist, able to ignore the evidence of persecution and starvation that he saw on a journey through the Soviet Union in 1932. Posing as a pro-Franco journalist in Spain, he spied for the Soviet Union and narrowly escaped execution. When he renounced communism, he wrote his 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, a fictional treatment of Stalin’s purges, which became a bestseller in France after the war.

We shift from Spain to the Soviet Union itself, where the best writers were the most suspect. We follow short-story writer Isaac Babel, trying to survive amid the purges and the show trials, “the compass needle dead on terror”, as the poet Robert Lowell was to put it. It is now possible to reconstruct the narrative of his torture, confession (to “spying”), retraction and perfunctory trial. He was executed in the Lubyanka prison in 1940.

White’s narrative method is to base each chapter on the fortunes of one author or pair of authors, but also to switch, from chapter to chapter, between different countries, sometimes different continents. The contrasts are telling. In 1936, while self-consciously leftwing US writers discuss the finer points of ideological commitment at the Congress of American Writers in Manhattan, the Moscow show trials are in full swing. Later, we leave Koestler and Sartre arguing over cold war attitudes at Paris soirees to see Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn entering a prison camp in the remote steppes of Kazakhstan, or the poet Anna Akhmatova, tormented into a show of compliance by the imprisonment of her son in a gulag, her best poetry remembered but not even written down.

US government agencies also feared the subversive effects of fiction. The House Un-American Activities Committee notoriously targeted Hollywood writers. White devotes a chapter to the communist novelist Howard Fast, whose novel Spartacus was prevented from publication by the FBI on the grounds that it was veiled pro-communist propaganda. Fast self-published his book and made it a bestseller. Another follows the African American novelist Richard Wright as he grapples with the growing realisation that communism will not offer the alternative to the violent racism that he has known in the US.

White is allured by the ways in which British writers became entangled with spies. While working for SIS (now commonly known as MI6) in 1942, the top Soviet agent Kim Philby was reading reports written by one of his agents in Freetown, Sierra Leone – Graham Greene. (Agent Greene’s big idea was for a West African “spy brothel”, which would lure Vichy French officers and filch their secrets from them.) When Greene returned from Africa to SIS HQ in St Albans in 1943, Philby became his boss. Greene later wrote a novel, Our Man in Havana, ridiculing the endeavours of his country’s intelligence agencies, and expressed sympathy for Fidel Castro, yet was continuing to pass information to the British secret service.

Not only was literature politicised: sometimes it seems that any cultural initiative had the secret services of the US or the USSR behind it. We find the Soviet Union was backing the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace, whose sponsors included Leonard Bernstein, Frank Lloyd Wright, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. The CIA, set up in 1947, had an equivalent faith in the potency of literary debates and publications. Most famously, it secretly funded the left-of-centre magazine Encounter, begun in 1953 with Stephen Spender as its first editor and Frank Kermode as his successor. The agency was everywhere in the world of letters. The international Congress for Cultural Freedom, a gathering of anticommunist intellectuals, received its covert financial backing. Intellectuals protested in the left-leaning Partisan Review against CIA influence, but this journal too had received funding from the agency. Prestigious literary magazines in various countries were also bankrolled. Paraphrasing Shelley, Mary McCarthy reflected that the leadership of the CIA felt a kinship with intellectuals: “The CIA sees itself as a lonely mastermind, the poet and unacknowledged legislator of the government.”

The US and the USSR were ready to pounce on literary achievements that embarrassed each other. Western intelligence services ensured that copies of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago were smuggled back into Russia. Equally, it was a Soviet victory when, after years of pressure, Stalin’s favourite, Mikhail Sholokhov, won the Nobel prize in 1965. An author such as Andrei Sinyavsky, imprisoned in the 1960s for his mischievous satirical fiction, may have protested at his trial that his work had no political trajectory, but it was being broadcast by the CIA-funded Radio Liberty. There was no escaping the cold war.

This is a long and compendious book, in part because the situation of any given writer often involves a good deal of potted history. It is a work of synthesis rather than of research, but White has a sharp eye for the telling anecdote – for the absurd as well as the fearful. We end in Moscow with the dying spy Philby unsuccessfully seeking out the visiting John le Carré, whose novels he loved, to help him write his memoirs. Philby was firm in his belief that a novelist of the cold war – especially one who had once been his professional foe – could best do justice to his life. Like his former masters, he respected literature.

Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War by Duncan White is published by Little, Brown (£25). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15.