Two decades ago the late Peter Coleman wrote a substantial essay on political correctness and he suggested that the partnership of non-socialist liberals, conservatives and anti-communist social democrats that existed in the Congress for Cultural Freedom might be revived.
People of a certain age will recall that the Congress formed in June 1950 in Berlin to fight the Culture Front in the Cold War. Encounter was the monthly international organ of the movement and among the local offshoots there was Quadrant magazine in Australia. The Congress convened conferences and seminars, sponsored periodical literature and supported dissident intellectuals and artists against repressive regimes (mostly communist) wherever they could.
The Congress can be called a “triple alliance” although historians immediately think of the ill-fated Triple Alliance formed in 1882 between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. The fractious allies required the powerful incentive of a common enemy to reman united and it did not long survive the Fall of the Wall. The last straw was probably the revelation that the CIA had been covertly providing financial support. It was not clear how many of the organizers were aware of the CIA involvement and reactions were mixed. In Sydney half the board of the local affiliate (the Association for Cultural Freedom) resigned and the other half insisted that it made no difference to their views on the critical issues.
Peter Coleman wrote The Liberal Conspiracy (1989) to record the rise and fall of the movement with an account of the leading figures and the vicissitudes of the organization as they struggled with internal divisions and their external opposition. In 1999 he revisited the story and suggested that something like the triple alliance might be reformed to counter the rising menace of political correctness in its latest form.
He sketched three chapters in the evolution of the story of political correctness. The first started in the 1930s with Lenin’s “useful idiots,” the left liberal admirers of the Soviet Union. Coleman traced that episode from the Popular Front of 1935 to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring In 1968.
The second chapter was the time of the New Left and the Counterculture. Without the baggage of the Soviet Union they pursued 'the long march through the institutions', especially the universities, the civil service, the new semi-autonomous publicly funded agencies of the grievance industry, the media, the churches. They fostered disdain for consumer capitalism, for traditional family values, for conventional schooling and child-rearing, the distrust of the idea of absolute truth and of 'bourgeois' civility.
The third chapter is the triumph of political correctness that we see at present. Writing before the turn of the century he listed the salient features.
Its first and preeminent characteristic Is that It calls for the politicisation - one might say the transformation - of life. It wants political direction of all departments from, say, children's fiction to judicial judgments. No profession is exempt.
Secondly, the Politically Correct do not tolerate dissent. Liberals of earlier generations accepted unorthodoxy as normal. But now, those who do not conform should be ignore, silenced or vilified. There is more than a little soft totalitarianism about Political Correctness.
Thirdly, the Politically Correct are self-righteous in a quasi-religious spirit. As a vanguard of enlightenment, they are prepared to impose reforms against the public will.
Fourthly, Political Correctness aims to achieve its objectives without violence. It is not ruled out entirely. It is tolerated or even encouraged in certain circumstances. But it is not necessary or fundamental.
Fifthly, the Politically Correct attack the culture and the guiding ideas of a society rather than the economics of capitalism. They have opted out of the economic debate because their ideas come from other disciplines. The situation has changed on this front with the rise of “new monetary theory” that purports to be based on rigorous economic theory and serves the purpose of supporting the massive growth of government that serves the purpose of the new utopians.
Coleman posed the question “What is to be done to respond to this latest and most insidious form of political correctness?”
He noted that the horrors of the Evil Empire and the obvious threat of violence from elements of the New Left were enough to provoke democratic countervailing forces. But the Left was not defeated and by luck and cunning it morphed into the tsunami that has engulfed us in recent times. Peter Coleman died at the end of March 2019 and he did not live to see the full flowering of the movement but would have recognized all the elements that he listed two decades before.
He suggested that there could be a revised version of the ‘triple alliance’ because the most prominent economic policy think-tanks were not sufficiently alert to the danger and proactive and coordinated in response. The conservative relicts of the previous campaign like Quadrant magazine never abandoned the contest on the culture front but Coleman saw a need for a more cohesive and coordinated international movement. The internet was young when he wrote and now it is much easier to organize the kind of activities that the Congress pursued with the means available at the time. He wrote:
Across the world there is a range of magazines which by their, nature are centres of Intellectual life and which are constantly assessing Political Correctness, distinguishing its liberal from its illiberal Impulses. But they work in isolation, often unaware of each other. They are waiting for some form of international cooperation.”
He suggested that we could be inspired by T. S. Eliot’s efforts when he was the editor of the London journal Criterion in the 1920s and 1930s to 'bring together the best In new thinking and new writing from all countries that had anything to contribute to the common good.' From London he made contact with magazine editors in Paris and Rome, Zurich and Frankfurt and Madrid.
The Congress continued that work and it had considerable success in its short life but the gains have been swept away by the new wave of political correctness. Coleman saw Eliot’s statement as a manifesto for our time. It was a call for magazines around the world, their editors and contributors and readers, to cooperate, converse and exchange ideas.
Just as the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its journals were able to demystify and expose the Communist Party and its Fellow Travellers, and the neo-conservative think-tanks and their journals were able to deconstruct the New Left and the counter-culture, so - I put to you - the existing but unrelated journals of liberal disposition, and their circles, should form the basis of a networks cooperative but informal as T. S Eliot advocated, to combat Political Correctness and keep alive the freedom of freedom, authenticity and imagination.
We now have the means to advance that international exchange of ideas and initiatives in ways that Eliot and Coleman did not envisage. What is wanting is the will and the organization!