A fascinating article in last month's Quadrant magazine debunks Amnesty International's innocuous 1961 "creation myth" and details its actual genesis in Cold War era Communist politics. The author, Claudio Véliz, was a student in London between 1952 and 1956 and a close working associate of Alec Digges. Digges was an Irish member of both the British Labour Party and the Communist Party of Ireland, as well as being a prime mover of the International Brigade Association's campaign to release political prisoners of Spain's Franco regime — a mission inspired by Digges' own participation with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, a volunteer fighting force recruited, armed and led by the Soviet Comintern. Digges' efforts to enlist the active and official support of the British Labour Party for his campaign were rebuffed because of the party's "policy of non-cooperation with communist front organizations" — an affiliation that socialist democratic parties were understandably sensitive about at the time.
1961 British lawyer, Peter Benenson, launches an Appeal for Amnesty '61 with the publication of an article, "The Forgotten Prisoners" in The Observer newspaper, London, United Kingdom (UK), on May 28th. The imprisonment of two Portuguese students who had raised their wine glasses in a toast to freedom moved Benenson to write this article which proved to be the genesis of AI. The appeal was reprinted in other papers across the world.
Although reluctant at first, it was Digges and not Benenson who realized the potential of diversifying the Brigade Association's appeals in order to "dilute the communist flavour." American cooperation with the Franco regime for the purpose of obtaining Cold War military bases in Spain provided a pretext that was perfectly aligned with Soviet objectives:
The apparent objectives of Amnesty International and other similarly humanitarian organizations are regarded as so innately decent that scrutiny of their origins, aims and activities is somehow vulgar and tends to be voluntarily suppressed — which makes one wonder how many NGOs were created out of similar imperatives or sympathies. The history of Amnesty International could help to explain its disproportionate focus on American and Israeli abuses, and could also possibly shed some light on its strong affinities to the United Nations and other organizations under its auspices, as well as its preference for a regime of activism promoted by NGOs that are generally either unaccountable to or unaccounted by the public.
Alec saw the battle lines redrawn with stark clarity, with the victims of capitalist and imperialist oppression all over the world on one side, and the United States and its allies, including Spain, on the other. Given such a contest, he realised that to undertake the defence of the Spanish freemasons had been timely as well as symbolically correct because it opened the door for victims of injustice everywhere, but especially in countries friendly to the United States, to join his former comrades-in-arms in Spanish prisons in a grand international coalition of the oppressed whose plight, when efficiently publicised, would bring embarrassment and opprobrium to the adversaries of the Soviet Union. The conclusion appeared to him inescapable that the International Brigade Association should put its experience at the service of the greater cause.
The entire article is highly recommended reading, with interesting insights into the politics of social democratic parties of the time as well as the Soviet Union's role in the Spanish Civil War. But what is of particular interest is the discussion of the strategy of recruiting and employing non-Communist (and even anti-Communist) actors to achieve Communist political objectives by taking advantage of the psychological need for overarching "righteous" causes in atomized, individualistic and democratic societies — a strategy developed in large part by a man named Willi Münzenberg, a protégé of Lenin's and director of the Soviet Comintern’s propaganda combine through the 20s and 30s. It was this strategy of enlisting the benevolent but careless humanitarian sympathies of Western dupes — what Lenin reportedly called "useful idiots" or "deaf-mutes" — to cover for independent pro-Communist fronts that was the direct or almost direct inspiration for Digges' Amnesty International initiative, according to Véliz. And despite the collapse of upper-case-C Communism in the Soviet Union, it's a strategy that is being used to ever greater effect today, propelling itself without any deliberate control through the sheer momentum of fashionable humanitarianism.
Even in 1954 Alec was unwittingly ahead of his time with such an imaginative proposal for tapping the reserves of humanitarian decency in the countries of the American alliance in order to undermine its moral authority.
For more on Münzenberg, whose contribution to 20th century political history is incredibly neglected, see also Stephen Koch's informative 1993 article in the New Criterion, Lying for the truth: Münzenberg & the Comintern. As an interesting aside related to the subject of Western, especially American and German, support and rescue of Soviet industrial and military expansion, see Harold Pease's testimony before the Constitutional Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee in 1979 — although it refers mostly to active and deliberate contributions, there are some interesting quotes on Lenin's attitudes toward the "deaf-mutes."
Münzenberg perceived, almost intuitively, that societies experiencing the warm secular embrace of industrial modernity were afflicted by a critical depletion of that moral justification which is “one of our deepest needs, one of our most powerful and essential human drives, ignored at our cost and peril”. Lacking any formal knowledge of theology, history or sociology, he understood in practice the importance of “righteousness” in human life. Correctly perceiving the dearth of this definitive ingredient among the middle and upper strata of Western European society, he deployed his formidable propaganda machine to the task of producing a sufficiency of convincing, immaculate and soul-enhancing righteous causes to fill the vacuum.