Thursday, June 7, 2007

Useful idiots

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.
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.

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:
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.

Alec briefed me before each of my trips to Spain and I reported to him on my return. These meetings afforded ample opportunity to discuss matters such as these, but never before and never again did he express himself on this issue with greater clarity and vehemence than on one particular evening in 1954, late in November, when Peter Benenson and I found ourselves by chance at 2 Parton Street WC1, the Brigade Association’s headquarters, an address that merits a commemorative plaque as the foundation site of Amnesty International.

It was there, over an awful lot of coffee and cigarettes, some Irish whiskey and a surfeit of spirited discussion, that for the very first time, as far as I can remember, Alec explained in some detail his plan for a new initiative that under the name “Amnesty International” would bring together the call for a general amnesty for prisoners in Spain originally adopted at the Brigade’s 1952 Annual General Meeting, the appeal for amnesty made by López Raimundo in his first public declaration issued from Mexico, the definitive internationalism rousingly proclaimed in the communist battle-hymn, the Internationale, and, most significantly, what he sincerely believed to be the robust and continuing international commitment both of the old Comintern and of the new Cominform.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Münzenberg correctly guessed that once a suitable cause had been hammered onto the public consciousness, it would not be difficult to lure his “innocents” — earlier and more brutally dubbed “useful idiots” by Lenin — to contribute their names, prestige and funds to well-organised “innocents’ clubs” manipulated into delivering the desired result by strategically placed activists, preferably not members of the Communist Party. Those invited to join and ostensibly to lead these organisations were invariably well-intentioned, socially respectable personages eager to play a constructive role in the struggle for social justice while satisfying their need for personal moral justification and “who had no idea that their consciences were being orchestrated by operatives of Stalin’s government”.

With hindsight one can now see that the ease with which Alec Digges, an experienced and disciplined member of the Communist Party, was prepared in 1954 to discuss with us the possible creation of Amnesty International, meant either that the idea was very much his own, or that he was simply adding “prisoners of conscience” to Münzenberg’s pre-war repertoire of deserving causes.

… 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. However, his idea was certainly well attuned to the changes that came in the wake of Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” at the Twentieth Congress, especially the Cold War resurrection of the spirit of the defunct Comintern and Cominform, but this time soaring on rhetorical wings that ignored world revolution, but called on the faithful “to take the lead in resisting the plans of American imperialist expansion and aggression in all spheres”.

It is also possible that by shouldering this simple non-revolutionary and anti-American latter-day task, Alec inadvertently kept alive the original intent of the Cominform and provided a practical goal for one of Münzenberg’s inspired propaganda initiatives. Like the Cheshire cat, the Cominform was gone, but its anti-American smirk remained very much with us and, for example, it is not impossible to suspect that an unintended and distant consequence of Münzenberg’s seminal initiative has been to enable the post-Cominform enthusiasts to respond to the anti-American directive by extending the repertoire of “righteousness” and organise worthy campaigns in favour of peace, freedom, trees, polar bears, democracy, the ozone layer and the compassionate treatment of illegal immigrants and against racial discrimination, obesity, globalisation, capital punishment, forced labour and torture. The Cold War experience would also have confirmed Münzenberg’s conviction that waged urbi et orbi, such campaigns would be ignored inside a communist world undisturbed by a free press and public opinion, but would undermine the moral status of policies advanced by the United States and its allies.
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."


Edward Michael George said...

I'm reminded of this (by Peter Hitchens) which, by pure coincidence, I happened upon yesterday.

Many Communists realized long ago that a bloody, Russian-style revolution was not the way to impose their ideas on advanced Western countries. They rightly feared that Europeans and Americans, Christian and conservative by upbringing, would never make such a revolution. So they resolved to change the people, leaving the issue of who controlled the state until later.

They believed that an attack on morality, religion, the family and traditional education would transform society much more effectively than a seizure of power.

Many of these men gathered in Frankfurt in 1923 in what they called the Institute for Social Research but which became known as the "Frankfurt School." Many members fled to America when Hitler came to power in 1933 and became highly influential in US universities, the cradles of political correctness. One of their leaders, the Hungarian Georg Lukács, said they were there to answer the question: "Who shall save us from Western Civilization?"

Lukács, in his period as schools commissar in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic, devised sex education as a deliberate way of debauching the minds of the young.

Other leading members included Theodor Adorno, whose book The Authoritarian Personality first put forward the idea that holders of conservative views were in some way unbalanced. But the most influential was Herbert Marcuse, believed to be the inventor of the slogan "Make Love, Not War," prophet of the sexual revolution and the Sixties counterculture.

Almost all the ideas of radical antifamily feminists, sex-education fanatics, homosexual equality campaigners and radical school reformers can be traced to this origin. So can the campaign to get rid of traditional history and literature in schools. It is one of the most successful political initiatives in modern history, all the more so because most of those influenced by it have never even heard of it.

—Mail on Sunday, 19 June 2005

basil said...

Blame the Beatles.