Cold War

Cold Warrior

Saying goodbye to Melvin J. Lasky


It was fitting that capitalism killed the Soviet empire before it did Encounter magazine, which, until its demise in June 1991, had for 37 years been a political and cultural outlet for anti-communist liberals. In a final letter to readers, its editor, Melvin J. Lasky, quoted an Eastern European counterpart on the woes of publishing: "Capitalism is the worst system in the world to edit a cultural magazine—except for all the others… We have had to struggle with commissars and secret-police censors—you have only to deal with bank managers …"

When Lasky died on May 19, he could at least take solace in the fact that many a commissar and secret police censor had, since the end of the Cold War, been recycled as a bank manager. And it must have been reasonably gratifying for him, as Encounter scrambled for cash that just wasn't there, to publish as a final hurrah in lieu of a full issue, a pamphlet titled, "Voices in a Revolution: Intellectuals (& Others) in the Collapse of the East German Communist Regime."

A Washington Post obit (which thinly referred to Lasky as an "outspoken anti-communist") recalled: "His critics enjoyed tweaking him by pointing out a visible irony—he looked exactly like V.I. Lenin." Somehow, I always thought Lasky looked more like the producer Jack Haley Jr., the son of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. Not that I necessarily imagined Lasky navigating through a Maginot Line of martinis in the Hollywood Hills, but somehow given his persistent hostility to Stalinism and its stifling legacy, it seemed more fitting to associate him with the maker of That's Entertainment than with the sorcerer's apprentice who imagined "war communism."

Numerology aficionados will have noticed that Lasky had the odd fortune of dying at the age of 84, the very same number George Orwell picked as the title of his most bitter indictment of totalitarianism. The geographically sensitive will remark that he passed away in Berlin, the former capital not only of the Reich but also of Erich Honeker. Lasky and what he stood for outlasted the thugs, and helped ensure that Orwell's nightmare wouldn't be fulfilled.

In the age of Alias, Lasky also lived to see his most controversial connection, that with the Central Intelligence Agency, accepted as more palatable. In April 1966, the New York Times published a story revealing that Encounter had been indirectly funded by the CIA through the agency's financing of an organization known as the Congress for Cultural Freedom. By then the magazine was no longer on the congress's payroll, but the damage had been done, at least for a time. What had for years been regarded as an independent publication was tarred with the brush of being the intellectual arm of a spy agency.

That idea alone should have made the critics pause. What many didn't know was that the CIA displayed considerable enlightenment in funding the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which included a menu of Europe and America's most prominent intellectuals. Lasky was one of its founders, but so too were such people as Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron, Stephen Spender, Malcolm Muggeridge, Denis de Rougemont, Ignazio Silone, and Sidney Hook (most of whom knew nothing of the CIA connection). Whether liberal skeptics like Aron or converted former communist agents like Koestler, they were all in one way or another men of the left who had come to regard the Soviet Union as a threat to the liberal humanism of the West.

It was to the CIA's credit that it saw the potential in building up an anti-communist left, and this was no coincidence. Enlightened liberals in the U.S. government, men such as Charles Bohlen and George Kennan at the State Department and Michael Josselson at the CIA (who handled the Congress for Cultural Freedom), but also the influential British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, supported such a strategy. As the author Peter Coleman has written in The Liberal Conspiracy (1989), his book on the Congress of Cultural Freedom: "[T]here developed a convergence, almost to the point of identity, between the assessments and agenda of the [non-communist left] intellectuals and that combination of Ivy League, anglophile, liberal, can-do gentlemen, academics, and idealists who constituted the new CIA."

Though Lasky was hardly as well known as the men he rubbed elbows with and edited, he was in every way a central figure in the Cold War intellectual battles of the 1950s and 1960s. He took over Encounter from Irving Kristol in 1958 and was soon publishing dissident Soviet literature as well as a large number of articles on what in those days was rather loosely referred to as "Afro-Asia." Yet, according to Coleman, Lasky also managed to gradually make the magazine appealing to the center and right wing of the British Labor Party.

I started haphazardly collecting Encounter in the late 1980s, and still have bound copies on my shelf reminding me of what it felt like on the eve of communism's disintegration in Europe. As one "people's democracy" after another caved in, the magazine, in its July-August and September 1990 issues, published texts from a symposium titled "Inquest on the Death of Communism." Among the conservatives rolled out were the insufferably pious Norman Podhoretz and a legitimately satisfied Robert Conquest, who largely listed those favorable Soviet reviews of his classic The Great Terror, about Stalin's purges, which had been so maligned by left-leaning critics in the West upon publication. William F. Buckley Jr. even knighted Lasky as one of the "heroes of the Cold War."

But it was the conclusion of Lasky's brief contribution that hit just the right note, and that seems a fitting epitaph today: "History has many 'cunning passages', but none more Eliotesque than the spectacle of hollow men—who praised reactionary revolutions, polluted progress, and the decrepit locomotive of history—conceding with bitter reluctance (if at all) that they have been wrong and that a few lonely voices over the decades since 1917 had been right after all."