The Ineffectuals: Old and New

On Monday, the 15th January, the B.B.C. produced another of their programmes on the present half-century. It covered the twenties and was written by Rebecca West. The whole of it was an example of the ignorance, inexperience and fatuousness of the “Bright young things” who emerged into the practical world from the “upper class.” We were told about the “treasure hunts” lasting most of the night, and of various futile capers, which Rebecca West defended on the ground that behind it all they were searching for a solution of the problem of war and of poverty; that the feminine section were let loose on the world to enter the professions and the like for the first time and that their freedom temporarily went to their heads. She herself belonged to that generation and she told us how their hopes were built on the expectation of abolishing war—and then these hopes were shattered; of their hopes to abolish poverty by supporting “Labour,” and how thrilled they were when the first real Labour Government was voted to power in 1929—and again how their hopes were shattered. In fact the whole programme was a record of the fatuous illusions and the inevitable disillusionment of the self-styled “Intellectuals.” The facts of social life and the essentials of its economic basis seemed to be outside of their knowledge and experience and they lost themselves in airy futilities. From the programme one gleaned nothing of the fact that working-class girls had been working and wrestling with the problems of life for long years before the women of Rebecca West’s circle had emerged from the cocoon of pampered privilege and became writers, artists, and so forth.


But the “Intellectuals” never learn. Convinced that the sun shines out of them, they go on blowing their coloured bubbles, changing the colours as each bubble bursts without any conception of the reason the bubbles burst.


A recent example of their bubble-blowing was the “Congress of Cultural Freedom” held from June 25th to the 30th, 1950. From the Report of this Congress, published under the title “Freedom Takes the Offensive,” the reader can satisfy himself on the type of people who took part in the Congress.


The Introduction informs us that the “Manifesto on Cultural Freedom” was “draw up . . . by leading intellectuals from 24 nations.” Let us glance at some of the statements made by these “men of brains.”


Pages 1 to 3 of the Report contain messages from nine people, all of whom see intellectual freedom in the West and intellectual chains in the East. No reference is made to the economic bondage that exists in both East and West and hampers working-class aspirations in both spheres. But as we shall see the “intellectuals” are not concerned about any but their own little circle of wind-bags.


The first contribution is by Arthur Koestler. He makes a series of muddled statements, without any clear definitions, that leave the reader in the air. His second paragraph runs as follows:—


“In fact, the thesis which I wish to put before you is that the antinomies “Socialism and Capitalism,” “Left and Right,” have to-day become virtually empty of meaning, and that so long as Europe remains bogged down in these false alternatives which obstruct clear thinking, it cannot hope to find a constructive solution for its problems.”


After this one would expect some definition of Socialism, but it is not given, and, although there is some criticism of nationalisation, one is left with the idea that Mr. Koestler identifies nationalisation with Socialism. For instance on page 8 he says, “Equally problematic is the question: just how much nationalisation makes a country Socialist or Capitalist?” The concluding paragraph of his contribution is a pearl. It is an excellent example of the impotence of his tribe:


“Sometimes I have a feeling in my bones that the terrible pressure which this conflict [between Capitalism and Socialism] exerts on all humanity might perhaps represent a challenge, a biological stimulus as it were, which will release the new mutation of human consciousness; and that its content might be a new spiritual awareness, born of anguish and suffering, of the full meaning of freedom. And I don’t mean by that freedom from want, freedom from fear, and the rest. Since the dawn of civilization people have fought under the slogan of freedom; but it was always freedom from some particularly irksome oppression, freedom in a restricted sense. I mean freedom in a much deeper and fuller sense than any we can conceive to-day or see realized anywhere in organic nature. If that is the case, then we are indeed living in an interesting time, and the answer we shall give to destiny’s challenge is not without import for the future of our species.”

What a pity he did not reveal that which is inconceivable to-day.


Sidney Hook poses a number of questions but does not give the answers, and James T. Farrell makes a fervent plea for “artists, thinkers and scientists,” and gives an imaginary picture of freedom in the West, ending with a plea for the “moral impulse.” Here are some extracts from his contribution: —


“Our task is to make as clear and as explicit as we can the meaning of freedom of culture, and, having done this, to show . . . what differentiates us from totalitarianism. To show how we live under different conditions of cultural life than do artists, thinkers and scientists in the stricken lands behind the Iron Curtain . . .
“We are free to admire what we value, and to reject what we do not value. We can criticize and we can oppose. We can participate in or ignore politics, as we think best. We can act as free artists, thinkers and scientists. And it is these rights which we should defend, use and expand. In these rights, we find the essence of cultural freedom . . .
“The freedom we possess should impose an obligation and a sense of duty upon us. In one of his great speeches, Abraham Lincoln used the phrase: ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all . . . ‘ I hope that, without any sacrifice of firmness of purpose, we all permeate our thinking with the spirit implied in these words of Lincoln. Especially when we look towards Soviet-dominated countries where artists and thinkers and scientists are forced to wear the uniform of totalitarianism, and where the dignity of men and women has been ground into dust. To these suffering people, to the terrorised artists and thinkers behind the Iron Curtain, we cannot and should not bear malice.”


Lack of space deprives us of the opportunity of tearing to pieces the above and the rest of the nonsense Mr. Farrell has contributed about the “traditions of civilisation.” If Mr. Farrell could tear his attention away from the “artists, thinkers, and scientists” for a few moments he might notice the existence of conscripts, of wage-freezing, of heresy hunting, of form-filling that puts our life-histories at the disposal of the State, the lack of housing accommodation, the armaments drive, and the numerous other joys of our jolly old Western democracy.


Another contributor, Richard Lowenthal, finishes his little piece with what reads like a plea for war: —


“The defence of freedom, then, is nothing else but the defence of this vital Western capacity for growth, and it resolves itself into a dual task: the task of going on to find creative solutions to the West’s internal problems, and the task of defending the Western society’s territory against the pressure of Soviet totalitarianism from outside.”


Like the rest of the contributors, Mr. Lowenthal offers no solution “to the West’s internal problems.” However, if his remarks read like a plea for war, James Burnham is quite open about it, as the following remarks of his show: —

“Moreover, I must add, in order to be fully honest, that I am not, under any and all circumstances, against atomic bombs. I am against those bombs, now stored or to be stored later in Siberia or the Caucasus, which are designed for the destruction of Paris, London, Rome, Brussels, Stockholm, New York, Chicago . . . Berlin, and of Western Civilisation generally. But I am—yesterday and to-day at any rate—for those bombs made in Los Alamos, Hanford, and Oak Ridge, and guarded I know not where in the Rockies  or American deserts.”


A nice discriminating and humane lover of peace and freedom is Mr. Burnham! This final example of the wisdom of the intellectuals is perhaps a fitting point at which to finish.