Journal de combat of the Cold War

Encounter’s cultural importance far outweighed doubts about its shadowy funding

It is almost 30 years since the demise of Encounter, the London-based monthly review of culture and politics, but no other magazine has since come close to matching its influence. Certainly none has attracted such a glittering contributors’ list of philosophers, poets, novelists, critics, historians and journalists. The sense of loss occasioned by its ending, akin in my own case to that caused by the death of a close friend, combined with a fear that a force for good in the world had been carelessly allowed to perish.

But communism had just collapsed, the Cold War had been won and the US foundations which had recently supported the magazine concluded that its aim of fighting communism had been heroically served; underwriting a magazine is an expensive business, and there were new concerns to address.

A few protested that the end of the great ideological struggle between Soviet Russia and the West did not mean that conflict itself had come to an end, for this would surely now return to the traditional terrain of ethnic, religious and nationalist rivalries. There would be new dangers to the civilisation which Encounter had sought to defend that would require the kind of rigorous analysis provided by its contributors over nearly four decades. If such advice was heard it was not heeded; the magazine’s debts were paid off, the staff dismissed and a grand star-studded wake, whose costs greatly exceeded the magazine’s annual subsidy, was organised in Berlin to celebrate its triumph — and its passing.

Encounter: exposed communist ideology with elan

When Melvin J Lasky, its editor for more than 30 of its 37-year existence, died in 2001, one obituarist wrote that the magazine had come to occupy a central role in English life. That description is misleading: although London-based, Encounter was essentially an Anglo-American publication. Lasky may have lunched regularly at the Garrick and lived in a Sussex manor house during the summer months but no one could have taken him for an Englishman. And not just because, ironically, this arch-enemy of Marxism bore a marked resemblance to Lenin.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Lasky had been born in the Bronx. Briefly a Trotskyist, he retained a highly distinctive gravelly American accent, his pugnacious conversational style owing much to the debates in which he taken part as a student at City College, New York, then a hothouse of radical left-wing politics. Even his purposeful stride which, I sometimes observed from my office window as he headed to or from the Garrick, indicated non-English origins: despite his short stature his walk was that of a man on his way to a fight that he was very confident of winning (as, in the metaphorical sense, turned out to be the case).

For many who wrote for the magazine, attended its monthly discussion lunches or simply subscribed, involvement with Encounter was to take sides in an historic struggle in which the Anglo-American relationship was deemed crucial (which is certainly how Lasky saw things). It was this sense of engagement, reflected in the magazine’s title, that gave its pages their distinctive character.

Despite the inclusion of items expressing contrary views, there was no hiding Lasky’s deep contempt for those who advocated Cold War neutrality, or who committed the equally incomprehensible sin of suggesting a moral equivalency between American racial segregation and the Soviet Gulag.

As a young army historian visiting German concentration camps at the end of the Second War, he had seen at first hand the consequences of totalitarianism; this, combined with the mounting evidence of Stalin’s crimes convinced him that the Western intellectual had a special responsibility to combat totalitarianism and to stand up for individual liberty. Otherwise, he concluded, “manuscripts will be banned, books will be burned and writers and readers will once again be sitting in concentration camps for having thought dangerous ideas or uttered forbidden words.”

The origins of the magazine lay in an Anglo-American partnership between the founders of the magazine, Lasky’s friend Irving Kristol, later to become the godfather of neo-conservatism, and the poet Stephen Spender. Like a number of those who were to write for Encounter, Spender was an ex-communist who went to Spain as a Daily Worker journalist during the Civil War but had fallen out of love with communism. While Kristol directed the political pages, Spender’s range of cultural contacts enabled him to enlist the most distinguished writers and scholars of the age.

These included Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley, W.H. Auden, Nancy Mitford, Ignazio Silone, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Sitwell, Leonard Wolf, Bertrand Russell and C.P. Snow. To these were added leading Oxbridge academics such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, A.J.P Taylor and Isaiah Berlin, and journalistic stars such as Henry Fairlie and Peregrine Worsthorne.

Kristol enlisted such combative New York public intellectuals as the sociologists Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer as well as Sidney Hook and Dwight MacDonald.

The poets commissioned first by Spender and then by his successors, Frank Kermode and Anthony Thwaite, were at least as distinguished: Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, D.J. Enright, Thom Gunn, Elisabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin, John Wain and Robert Conquest, who also wrote about Soviet Russia.

British contributions from the political world came from the anti-communist wing of the Labour Party, notably Anthony Crosland, Richard Crossman and David Marquand. Rereading their contributions to the magazine of 60 years ago one cannot but fail to reflect on the yawning contrast in intellect between the Labour leaders of the period and the mediocrities at the head of the party today.

Encounter was not the kind of magazine to which you simply sent your copy and then waited for the cheque (which indeed might very well not arrive). You were invited, indeed encouraged, to visit its offices where an open-ended discussion would almost invariably be going on between Lasky and other contributors and staff members. These frequently featured Lasky’s close friend Leopold Labedz, the editor of Survey, a journal of East-West relations, who possessed an unrivalled knowledge of Soviet and East European politics which he placed at the service of Encounter. Conversations between the two men, often heated, might last for hours, and if punctuated by the demands of office routine or the need for food or sleep might resume with a telephone call from one or other man other beginning, “And another thing!”

It is sad that contemporary references to Encounter tend to concentrate on its CIA support

The warmth of the greeting extended to contributors and visitors to Encounter’s office in St Martin’s Lane, and subsequently in Great Windmill Street, partly reflected Mel’s belief that those who wrote for the magazine or supported it in some other way were engaged in a common cause; one which would determine the fate of Europe and indeed the world. In this struggle, the preservation of the Atlantic relationship was deemed crucial. It was this core conviction that shaped editorial priorities, and no doubt accounts for criticism that the magazine was insufficiently concerned about the blemishes in US politics and society, which Lasky clearly regarded as being beside the point.

Arch-enemy of Marxism: Editor Melvin J Lasky at an artist’s convention in Germany, circa 1950

In the historian dennis brogan’s words Encounter was a journal de combat: we were there for a purpose, not just for intellectual fun. But it was also a reflection of the individuals recruited by Lasky who fiercely resented any criticism of their charismatic and inspirational boss. At the monthly ideas lunches, Tony Robinson, the tall, elegant executive publisher, ensured that no glass remained empty and frequently breached his own rule that the staff should not drink before 5pm.

There were, of course, frequent rows, sometimes the result of over-heated differences about the significance of some change in East-West relations, or resulting from Lasky’s practice of rewriting his contributors’ copy. On receiving a proof of a critical article I had written about E.P. Thompson, the historian, I pointed out to Robinson that almost a quarter of the piece had been inserted by a hand other than my own. He replied: “Only a quarter? You’re lucky! Mel tries to rewrite everything.”

I suggested that perhaps Lasky might be rather more cautious when editing contributors more eminent than myself, but was promptly corrected: “It’s quite the other way around, old boy. You should see what he did to Bertrand Russell!”

I should add that none of Lasky’s additions changed the meaning of my text; what they did do was to add a certain New World brio while excising anything resembling English understatement. When the issue appeared I was embarrassed to see my name on the cover in bigger type than that of Luigi Barzini, a journalistic hero of mine, as well as that of William Trevor and George Steiner. “Well, it’s a great piece, Gerry,” explained Mel, without alluding to the fact that he was part-author.

My reward for having displayed the temerity to attack Thompson’s intellectual slipperiness and hypocrisy was to be treated with a degree of consideration and respect never before, or since, accorded to me by an editor. Like many other of his friends I received a steady stream of cuttings culled by Mel from the world press as a means of prompting thought, along with a flow of postcards that were nearly always impossible to decipher.

It is sad that contemporary references to Encounter tend to concentrate on its CIA support, and the controversy that this caused when it was revealed in 1967, rather than on its achievements. In an obituary of Robinson, the Times described Encounter as having been “the most important magazine in the world” while at the height of the Cold War the Observer wrote that “there is no other journal in the English-speaking world which combines political and cultural material of such high quality.”

Influence is extraordinary difficult to measure, but the magazine’s impact on the intellectual climate in Europe and North America clearly assisted the processes by which during the 1980s the limits of what was politically possible shifted in favour of more robust policies towards the Soviet Union.

No other publication can claim to have so consistently exposed the nature of communist ideology with such elan, or to have provided encouragement and a safe haven for those who found themselves isolated or threatened by the Marxists’ long march through the institutions in the West; or to have offered such a bright beacon of hope to dissident intellectuals in Eastern and Central Europe at a time when freedom and democracy in those countries were seemingly impossible goals.

Fifty years later, it seems remarkable that so many should have expressed shock when the New York Times revealed in 1966 that the CIA had funnelled funds to Encounter through the Congress of Cultural Freedom. After all, the Congress had been Lasky’s idea. He made clear from its inception that its purpose was to provide the cultural equivalent of Marshall Aid, without which he believed Western Europe would be lost. This was something which plainly could not be done on a shoestring.

No other publication can claim to have so consistently exposed the nature of communist ideology with such elan

The seeds of this vastly ambitious project can be traced to a writers’ congress in the Soviet sector of Berlin in 1946, which Lasky attended as a journalist. This, he quickly realised, was in reality a Moscow-organised propaganda exercise. Unable to stomach repeated denunciations of the corrupt and imperialistic West, Lasky, then aged 25 but speaking in fluent German, took the microphone, first denouncing writers who had sought to appease Hitler, then comparing the Third Reich to the communist police state of the USSR.

His words aroused the sympathetic interest of General Lucius D. Clay, the American military governor of the US sector, who encouraged him to join the cultural offensive being waged on the Soviets and to whom Lasky now became adviser.

Two years later, the Congress had become a reality, with substantial funds coming from the Ford Foundation, and Lasky founded Der Monat, a Berlin-based magazine with aims identical to those to be followed by Encounter. With customary self-confidence, he signed up George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and Aldous Huxley as early contributors.

Today almost the only thing that anyone can remember about the Congress is that it was financed by the CIA, but the range of support extended to magazines and other publications, conferences and seminars was impressive, with recipients in 35 countries. As the historian Frances Stonor Saunders wrote: “Whether they liked it or not, whether they knew it or not, there were few writers, poets, artists, historians or scientists in post-war Europe whose names were not in some way linked to this covert enterprise.”

Lasky at first denied the New York Times story, which was followed by the resignation of Stephen Spender and later by that of his successor, Frank Kermode. Lasky later accepted that Encounter had been an “unwitting recipient” of CIA largesse. “But,” he insisted, “nobody ever interfered in the editorial workings, no outsider hired or fired, and no outside ‘suggestion’ or ‘guidance’ was acceptable.”

The small earthquake in Bohemia which the revelation about the magazine’s covert funding produced led to the departure of several leading contributors and a fall in readership (which later recovered, reaching a new high sales figure of 40,000).

Curiously, no one objected when it was revealed that Encounter had also received funds from the Foreign Office — crisp banknotes in brown envelopes regularly collected by Margot Walmsley, a former FO employee. Cecil King, whose International Press Corporation had taken over the magazine’s business management, gave Lasky firm backing, resisting calls for his resignation on the grounds that Encounter without him “would be like Hamlet without the prince”. It also provided the funding previously provided by the CIA.

A brief period of financial stability followed the IPC rescue, but this came to an end when King was removed from IPC in a boardroom coup: his successors were unwilling to make good the magazine’s £25,000 annual loss. Robinson helped Lasky to become the legal owner of the magazine and set about trying to raise the funds to keep it going — which meant that from then on Robinson was on a constant fundraising treadmill.

Henceforth, funds would come from US foundations, newspaper magnates and other rich individuals. For his constant visits to the US, Robinson booked cheap flights and stayed in a fading New York hotel, but entertained potential supporters and friends in the Blue Room at the Algonquin, where on one memorable occasion his party is reputed to have exhausted the bar’s stock of champagne.

Robinson once received a telephone invitation to meet a potential donor at a New York restaurant. He was shown to a table occupied by an Arab in flowing Bedouin dress and bearing a remarkable facial resemblance to the actor Peter Sellers. The man handed him a cheque for $25,000, explaining that it had been drawn on an account that would be closed immediately after it had been cleared and was given on the understanding that Robinson would make no attempt to contact him again or discover his identity. Robinson later concluded that the man really was Peter Sellers, employed by a rich well-wisher with a sense of humour.

The history of Encounter raises interesting questions about how magazines of this kind should be funded as well as to whether a totalitarian adversary can be defeated by purely transparent means. Private patronage has nearly always been a vital source of support for the artist, the writer, the social critic and composer, as well as that of the modern-day review of culture and politics which by its nature is never likely to make money. Its record over the centuries suggest that it is a far more discriminating patron than the state. The problem with private patrons is they can prove fickle, go broke, or die — which exposes all those who seek long-term funding to obvious risks.

Many of Lasky’s critics claimed that his fault was not that he took CIA funding but that he did not tell contributors and colleagues about its source. Yet had he done so many would not have written for it for fear of damage to their reputations. It is surely to Lasky’s credit that he cared more about the outcome of the contest to which he had devoted his life than the impact of unfounded allegations about his independence.

As events subsequently showed, private funding on a scale sufficient to achieve Lasky’s ambitious aims could not be relied upon over time. He concluded that the stakes were sufficiently high to justify concealment. It’s surely about time that the beneficiaries of the West’s defeat of communism — which is all of us — should acknowledge both the dilemma in which he found himself and the measure of his success.

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