Think Piece

An Intellectual History of “Culture” from the Global South c.1950-1970: The Congress for Cultural Freedom in India and Mexico

By Guest Contributor Daniel Kent-Carrasco

By Daniel Kent-Carrasco

In recent years, the story of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) has become well known. Constituted as a network of mostly male, upper class, elite intellectual circles of militant liberal persuasion, the CCF was a front for anticommunist cultural activism and a powerful vehicle for the cultural ideals associated with the Free World, liberal democracy and anti-totalitarianism promoted from the North Atlantic. In the Third World, a transcontinental arena that took shape at par with the Cold War, the CCF’s heritage was ambivalent. Between 1950 and 1967, it failed to establish itself beyond elite circles of capital cities like Beirut, Delhi, Mexico City or Cairo. However, as we will see below, it contributed to a more subtle and enduring feat: the establishment of a public sphere of debate defined by anti-utopian and “post-ideological” principles of the early Cold War, the coordinates of which continue to entrap the contours of intellectual debate in many Third World countries. In essence, these principles rejected the ideological enthusiasm of interwar intellectual debates in favor of a moderate sphere of discussion marked by the open dismissal of utopian ideals, now identified with the evils of authoritarianism.

From its moment of inception in June 1950, the CCF aimed at becoming a transcontinental organization. In November, James Burnham—member of the CCF’s US delegation and infamous promoter of Containment doctrine—announced that he had been contacted by an “Indian friend” who wished to help the Congress expand its activities in the recently created Republic of India. This “friend” was none other than Minoo Masani, an important socialist leader of anticommunist leanings who had been in communication with Burnham for some years. In that same meeting, Burnham also suggested the importance of celebrating “some kind of conference” in Latin America, “maybe in Mexico”, that could help advance the cause of the CCF in the region. Both suggestions were celebrated by the meeting’s attendants, all of whom were eager to contribute to the creation of a broad anticommunist intellectual front across the emerging arena of the Third World (“Congress Pour la Liberté de la Culture. Séance du 27 Novembre 1950”, International Association for Cultural Freedom Records [(IACFR), box 56, file 7].

Shortly after, the CCF consolidated its presence in both countries. In January 1951, Masani headed the creation of the Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom (ICCF). Based in Bombay, the Committee soon set out to finance and organize a meeting of writers, artists and intellectuals from across the “free countries” of Asia, a label that spoke not of any postcolonial political reality, but rather of a stringent anticommunist paranoia (Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom, “A Working Paper prepared in connection with a preliminary meeting of writers and others from the countries of South, South-East and East Asia” IACFR, 173, 5). Fueled by the emerging international anti-totalitarian consensus of the day, along with the support of peers in the central office of the CCR in Paris, the event brought together intellectuals from the North Atlantic and important representatives of Indian public debate such as B. R. Ambedkar, Stephen Spender, Norman Thomas, Salvador de Madariaga, Asoka Mehta, and Jayaprakash Narayan. The Indian branch of the CCF grew considerably during the following years. It rallied the support of writers and scholars such as the poets Nissim Ezekiel and Buddhadeva Bose, and writers Eric Da Costa, Sachchidanand Vatsyayana, Rajni Kothari, and S. C. Dube. Its promoters also gained ground in the international arena: Masani was soon integrated to its international Executive Committee and Jayaprakash Narayan was included into the prestigious list of Présidents d’honneur of the Congress, along with stalwarts of western liberal culture such as John Dewey, Benedetto Croce and Karl Jaspers. In 1960 its Delhi office was recognized as the CCF’s Asia regional headquarters, turning the ICCF into a continental enterprise.

         During those same years, the CCF also secured its presence in Mexico City. Thanks to the joint effort of the Spanish writer Julián Gorkin and the Mexican editor Rodrigo García Treviño, the Mexican Association for Cultural Freedom (AMLC) was created in 1954. The group, initially focused on fighting the “dictatorship” led by communist artists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros in the realm of Mexican culture (“Activities of the Latin American Committees of the Congress for Cultural Freedom During the Last Six Months of 1954”, IACFR, 57a, 1), garnered support from important members of the country’s cosmopolitan intelligentsia, including figures such as Rufino Tamayo, Alfonso Reyes, Octavio Paz, Margarita Michelena and Daniel Cosío Villegas. The AMLC’s highpoint came in 1956 with the celebration of the CCF’s Interamerican Conference in Mexico City. One of the biggest events of the CCF outside European soil, the Conference brought together figures such as Germán Arciniegas, Benjamín Carrión, Rómulo Gallegos, John Dos Passos, Ralph Waldo Ellison, Frank Tannenbaum, Roger Baldwin and Luis Alberto Sánchez.

By the end of the 1950s, Burnham and his colleagues in Paris had ample motive to celebrate the growth of CCF branches in India and Mexico. In 1958, John Hunt, undercover CIA agent and CCF Secretary, acknowledged not only the local importance of both the ICCF and the AMLC, but also their relevance as platforms for the spread of the militant faith of Cold War liberalism in other countries like Ceylon, Burma, Brazil, and Colombia (Activities of the National Committees of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. 1957, and Comité Exécutif International, 18-19 Janvier, 1958. Brief by John C. Hunt, IACFR 58, 4).

            In both countries, the thrust and funds provided by the CCF strengthened the consolidation of a new front of elite cultural activism marked by a growing—and at times delusional—conviction of the political importance of the intellectual. In a text published in Foreign Affairs in 1955, Masani claimed that intellectuals in Asia held more power than the “landed aristocracy and the capitalist landowners” in “making and unmaking governments”. In virtue of their links with the West and their ability to represent the more modern and cosmopolitan sectors of their societies, Masani assured his western readers that elite intellectuals represented the true “ruling class” of Asia. This fantasy fed on the ideas of western authors interested in the “new countries” of Asia and Africa, such as Edward Shils, who saw intellectuals as the mediators between “tradition” and “modernity”. Echoing the defense of the liberal premise that promoted the autonomy of the intellectual regarding political power, rejecting “ideological possession”, Third World defendants of the CCF posed that the cultural arena should work as the bedrock for the creation of a truly free society. In the line of authors such as Daniel Bell, these men were fearful of the monster of “ideology”, which they saw as the greatest obstacle for the emergence of a rational public arena of debate and intellectual exchange.

On the other side of the world, defendants of the CCF in Mexico shared Masani’s faith in the crucial role intellectuals were destined to play in the defense of the Free World. For these Mexican intellectuals, this was a way of affirming their belonging in the flow of Western culture. They conceived their country, and its geopolitical region Latin America, as the “spiritual prolongation” of Europe. Mexican intellectuals, claimed Gorkin, acknowledged their debt to European culture and enthusiastically accepted the “defense of Europe and its freedoms” as a commonly shared mission (“Report by Julian Gorkin on the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Latin America”, IACFR, 57, 5). These claims echoed the longings of young cosmopolitan intellectuals like Octavio Paz, who in 1950 claimed triumphantly that Mexicans saw themselves “for the first time in history” as being “contemporary with all men”. Shedding the cloak of revolutionary nationalism defended by previous Mexican intellectuals, members of these younger elites fervently pursued the dream of becoming integrated in the mainstream of Western cultural production arbitrated from the capital cities of the North Atlantic.

During the 1960s, the CCF moved beyond the realm of literary and artistic culture and ushered a platform for the promotion of intellectual debates linked to the ideal of “modernization” among elite academic circles in India and Mexico. Central to the agenda of development promoted from the North Atlantic during the postwar years, “modernization” was seen by intellectuals and policymakers across the world as the recipe for overcoming “traditional” socioeconomic constraints and advancing along the road of industrial capitalism and liberal democracy. This theory cemented a new transcontinental ideology that justified North Atlantic intervention across the Third World in the name of progress and development, thus serving as the geopolitical complement to the “post-utopian” militant liberalism of the early Cold War. In India, the Congress funded the activities of authors such as Asoka Mehta and Rajni Kothari, both of whom participated actively in its activities and promoted links and exchanges with scholars in the North Atlantic such as Myron Weiner, Louis P. Hartz and Edward Shils (“Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom. Calcutta Centre. Report of Activities during 1966”, IACFR, 179, 1). The CCF took Mexico as a standpoint to rally scholars from Mexico—including Jaime García Terrés, Juan Marichal, Víctor Urquidi and Daniel Cosío Villegas—and colleagues from across Latin America—such as Orland Fals-Borda, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Peter Heintz  and Gino Germani—who became invested in the defense of values and ideas central to the geopolitical transcontinental project of development and modernization (“Planning Committee Latin America—Mexico, 28-31 Oct. 1964”, IACFR, 215, 9).

As is well known, the CCF swiftly collapsed in 1967 following a series of journalistic revelations that documented its links to the CIA. Its reputation was badly damaged and its standing across the world was greatly diminished. These revelations coincided with the heightening of international apprehensions regarding US cultural interventionism in the Third World. In Mexico, the thrust of the Cuban Revolution, and the growing awareness of the meeting points between US anticommunist agendas and the repressive stance of the national government, opened new spaces for the emergence of renewed leftist and anti-US positions among intellectuals, scholars, and artists. In India, the growth of communist and other left groups, combined with the alarm generated by the invasion of Vietnam, strengthened the rejection of cultural and political US presence across the country. The eclipse of the CCF thus coincided with the beginning of a new stage of the global Cold War, marked by the open rejection of supposedly “post-ideological” stances and the weakening of the transnational liberal cultural and intellectual activism of the early postwar era.

Despite its boisterous descent in the late 1960s, during nearly two decades, the CCF served as an important forum for debate and cultural activism in both Mexico and India, shaping posterior trajectories of intellectual and artistic debates in both countries. As Patrick Iber pointed out, the CCF facilitated the consolidation of a sphere of cultural activity on the margins of the state, headed by cultural entrepreneurs. Embodied by figures like Masani, Gorkin or García Treviño, this new cultural type served to promote ideological positions related to anticommunist consensus of North Atlantic intellectuals. These agendas, focused on the need to succeed in the “free market of ideas”, linked with the fear of “totalitarianism” and the ideal of “modernization”, contributed to the consolidation of a new liberal intellectual dogma that defined the contours of academic, cultural, and political debate in both countries following the 1970s. In a global arena marked by the impact of decolonization, and the militant assertion of diverse strands of anti-imperialism linked to the rejection of old European and new American forms of influence, the CCF acted as an international forum for the defense of this liberal dogma, which lured some of the most visible and celebrated cultural and intellectual figures of countries like Mexico and India. Clinging to the old modernist defense of the separation of the realms of culture and politics, its defendants contributed to the growth and global spread of a new cultural horizon focused on the ideals of freedom, individuality, and elite cosmopolitanism. In this sense, the history of the CCF in locations like India and Mexico sheds light upon the strong linkages and continuities between the militant faith of Cold War liberalism and the emergence, and global triumph, of neoliberalism in the closing decades of the twentieth century.

Daniel Kent-Carrasco is a historian of Mexico, India and the reflected and interlinked histories of the Third World. He obtained a PhD degree at King’s College, London. He teaches at UNAM, in Mexico City, and is part of the editorial board of Revista Común. He is currently working on a biography of the itinerant scientist and revolutionary Pandurang Khankhoje.

Edited by Matias X. Gonzalez

Featured Image: Victoria Terminus in Bombay in late 1930’s, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.