Overland and the CIA

The Autumn 1959 edition of Overland carried two reviews of Boris Pasternak’s novel, Dr Zhivago.

The first, by the NZ critic Maurice Shadbolt, declared the book ‘one of the most astonishing and remarkable novels, written in Russian or any other language, of this tremendous century’. The second, by the writer Katharine Susannah Prichard, denounced Dr Zhivago as ‘flimsy and ineffectual’ – and then suggested that the Soviet Union’s refusal to allow publication of the novel had actually ‘protected Pasternak from the wrath of the people’.

On 13 May 1959, Rex Chiplin responded in the Communist Party of Australia’s newspaper Tribune in a piece entitled ‘Overland – where’s it being taken?’ (a question that I ask myself most days).  Chiplin adduced the publication of Shadbolt’s review as evidence of what he called the ‘decay of Overland’.

On the old pretence of “presenting both sides” Overland has ‘Two Views of Dr Zhivago’, Pasternak’s anti-Soviet novel that Soviet publishing houses refused to handle.

He concluded:

Overland has become a shackle on the Labor Movement by its veering from Left, through centre and away to the Right where, if editor [Stephen] Murray Smith is allowed to have final say, it will remain.

Over the next weeks, the so-called ‘Overland controversy’ raged in the pages Tribune. While the occasional Murray-Smith supporter spoke up, the CPA gave far more space to the party writers (Ralph de Boissiere, Frank Hardy) critical of his editorship.

The episode represents a key moment in Overland’s break with the Communist Party. Certainly, Murray-Smith himself seems to have understood Chiplin’s intervention as a paradigmatic example of the dogmatism against which he and co-thinkers like Ian Turner were reacting as they evolved from communism to social democracy.

It’s interesting, then, to revisit the episode in light of new revelations about the prominent role played by the CIA in popularizing Pasternak and his book.

In April this year, the CIA website made available

100 declassified documents that detail the CIA’s role in publishing the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago after the book had been banned in the Soviet Union.  The 1958 publication of Boris Pasternak’s iconic novel in Russian gave people within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the opportunity to read the book for the first time.

The declassified memos, letters, and cables reveal the rationale behind the Zhivago project and the intricacies of the effort to get the book into the hands of those living behind the Iron Curtain.

In a memo dated April 24, 1958 a senior CIA officer wrote: “We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country [and] in his own language for his people to read.”

After working secretly to publish the Russian-language edition in the Netherlands, the CIA moved quickly to ensure that copies of Doctor Zhivago were available for distribution to Soviet visitors at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.  By the end of the Fair, 355 copies of Doctor Zhivago had been surreptitiously handed out, and eventually thousands more were distributed throughout the Communist bloc.

As it happened, Pasternak went on to win the 1958 Nobel Prize for literature, the popularity of his novel  skyrocketed, and the plight of the great Russian author in the Soviet Union received global media attention.

Subsequently, the CIA funded the publication of a miniature, lightweight paperback edition of Doctor Zhivago that could be easily mailed or concealed in a jacket pocket.  Distribution of the miniature version began in April 1959.

Obtaining, publishing, and distributing banned books like Doctor Zhivago was an important Cold War-era success story for the CIA.

The CIA’s efforts to weaponise culture during the Cold War have been well documented.

Frances Stonor Saunders explains:

The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.

The next key step came in 1950, when the International Organisations Division (IOD) was set up under Tom Braden. It was this office which subsidised the animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which sponsored American jazz artists, opera recitals, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s international touring programme. Its agents were placed in the film industry, in publishing houses, even as travel writers for the celebrated Fodor guides. And, we now know, it promoted America’s anarchic avant-garde movement, Abstract Expressionism. […]

The centrepiece of the CIA campaign became the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a vast jamboree of intellectuals, writers, historians, poets, and artists which was set up with CIA funds in 1950 and run by a CIA agent. It was the beach-head from which culture could be defended against the attacks of Moscow and its “fellow travellers” in the West. At its height, it had offices in 35 countries and published more than two dozen magazines, including Encounter.

The declassification of the CIA’s Pasternak documents accompanies the publication of a new book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée. The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book reveals just how much effort was put into the promotion of Pasternak as a dissident writer.

One of the CIA memos explains:

We feel that Dr Zhivago is an excellent springboard for conversations with Soviets on the general theme of Communism versus Freedom of Expression’. Travellers should be prepared to discuss with their Soviet contacts not only the basic theme of the book itself – a cry for the freedom and dignity of the individual – but also the plight of the individual in the communist society.

In another document, the CIA suggests that the book ‘be published in a maximum number of foreign editions, for maximum free world distribution and acclaim and consideration for such honour as the Nobel prize’.

This was precisely what happened. The Overland discussion developed in the wake of the Nobel committee’s decision to award Pasternak the prize in 1958 – and, more importantly, Pasternak’s refusal (under obvious duress) to accept it.

A consideration of the CIA’s role in the Pasternak affair – and, by extension, the ‘Overland controversy’– reinforces something that’s been clear for a long time: namely, the Cold War was far more complex than is conventionally acknowledged. That is, with the collapse of illusions in Stalinism, the old Right’s view of the period as a simple struggle between freedom and repression has become hegemonic, even (or perhaps especially) among the liberal Left. Progressive intellectuals who, a generation ago, defended the Soviet Union have now, almost without exception, embraced the arguments of their one-time opponents, accepting the Manichean analysis of the State Department: on the one side, freedom and democracy; on the other, repression and totalitarianism.

Obviously, the tyranny in the Soviet Union and its satellites can no longer be doubted, and the role that progressives played proselytising for Russian Stalinism remains a stain on the history of the Left. For instance, in her review of Dr Zhivago, Katharine Susannah Prichard discusses her own experience in the Soviet Union.

When I was in Siberia in 1933, I talked to partisans and can imagine their bitter resentment of Pasternak’s short-sighted and mean-spirited account of their struggle against the counter-revolutionary forces of Wrangel and Kolchak, reinforced by foreign troops and equipment.

As it happened, Prichard travelled through the Soviet Union during the worst of the Stalin famine of 1932–33. According to the playwright Betty Roland, who there at the same time, Prichard was, in reality, devastated by the corruption and misery she witnessed – but, shamefully, returned to Australia and continued to sing the praises of the  regime.

Yet the CIA’s involvement with Pasternak reminds us that Cold War liberalism was also a deeply compromised and problematic movement, led, to a remarkable degree, by anti-communist intellectuals, writers and artists reliant (whether consciously or not) upon funding from the CIA. Irving Kristol, Melvin Lasky, Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender, Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell, Dwight MacDonald, Robert Lowell, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Ignacio Silone, Stephen Spender, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron, Anthony Crosland, Michael Josselson, George Orwell: they were all promoted with money from the CIA, at a time when the CIA was also busy overthrowing elected governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954).

It is one of the ironies of the twentieth century that the animated version of Orwell’s ‘anti-totalitarian’ Animal Farm should be surreptitiously created and distributed by a secret agency that was simultaneously engaged in the replacement of democratic regimes with vicious dictatorships.

A recognition of the CIA’s involvement with Pasternak helps explain something that often entirely baffling to liberal historians: namely, why anyone paid attention to the bluster of the communist parties’ cultural apparatchiks.

That is, with the passage of half a century, the polemics by Chiplin, Hardy and Prichard – their warnings about the imperialist agenda behind Pasternak – can seem like the ravings of crude conspiracists. Except, of course, conspiracies were genuinely taking place – and Tribune’s readership knew it. The working class militants reading Chiplin’s tirade against Murray-Smith had no problem accepting that dark forces were manipulating events behind the scenes since that was, for instance, precisely what was taking place within the union movement, as the supporters of BA Santamaria, worked (with tacit state support) to topple militant leaders.

Even within the realm of literature, political writers and readers knew that their enemies were active. In 1956, Richard Krygier, head of the local arm of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, established Quadrant, explicitly intended, as he put it, as ‘a counterweight to the kind of leftism so evident in Meanjin.’ The founders of Quadrant liaised about their project with ASIO and Prime Minister Robert Menzies; their funding came primarily from the the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Yes, that’s right – Quadrant, that scourge of tax-payer funded arts organisations, owes its existence to money secretly siphoned from American taxpayers courtesy of the CIA.

Rumours of the sinister forces supporting Quadrant were already circulating in the fifties –  as early as 1954, Meanjin published an article suggesting CIA involvement with the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom.

In other words, a reading of the ‘Overland controversy’ as simply involving questions of Pasternak’s literary merit misses the point. Chiplin and his cothinkers were entirely correct to insist that other issues were at work – if anything, they underestimated just how directly the US had invested in Dr Zhivago.

That’s worth stressing because it allows us to rescue the CPA’s literary infrastructure from the easy condescension of the present day. With the passage of fifty years, it’s tempting to imagine the cultural debates in and around the party as entirely worthless – simply a matter of Moscow’s dupes receiving their orders via the crude diatribes of local commissars.

Yet the Overland debate shows that Tribune – a weekly paper sold outside factory gates – argued about books with an intensity and sophistication that’s entirely unimaginable in the literary pages of Australia’s weekend papers in 2014.

Nor was the literary debate simply a cipher for politics (though obviously it was that as well). The heat produced by arguments about Overland, as a leftwing journal, makes more sense when you understand that, without the literary apparatus of the CPA, it was essentially impossible for leftwing writers to publish. The tremendous conservatism of the publishing industry in Australia meant that, with few exceptions, books about radical politics – or even working class life – simply would not appear through commercial channels.

Which is really a way of saying that Stalinism in Australia needs to be understood as a two-sided phenomenon. On the one hand, the leaders of the CPA were unquestionably loyal to the monstrous dictatorship in the Soviet Union, whose foreign policy shifts they mirrored. On the other hand, the party enjoyed considerable working class support not because its members were incorrigible dupes but because the CPA, even in the fifties, took on many issues positions that were entirely correct. Reading through Tribune during the weeks of the Overland debate, you cannot help but be struck by the paper’s coverage of Indigenous issues – its championing of black rights at a time when anti-Aboriginal racism was almost ubiquitous. Most people didn’t join the CPA because of what was happening in Russia. They joined because they cared about trade unionism, the fight against racism, rights for women and other issues the party championed.

Something similar took place in the cultural sphere. Yes, the CPA enforced, to the best of its ability, Zhdanov’s dogma about what progressive entailed. But  the party also created, either directly or indirectly, an entire literary infrastructure of bookshops, criticism, publishing ventures and reading circles – the most extensive project of its kind Australia has ever seen.

In a context in which mainstream historians treat local Communists as the moral and political equivalents of Beria, it’s important to stress both sides of Australian Stalinism. But, of course, the two aspects could never entirely be separated.

You can see that in the ‘Overland controversy’, a debate that, as a psychoanalyst might say, is thoroughly over-determined. Chiplin attacks Murray-Smith about Pasternak – but the argument about Dr Zhivago is entirely enmeshed in arguments about intellectuals and the working class, Hungary and 1956, satire and realism, and many other issues.

Let’s return to the issue of the CIA’s involvement. What do the new revelations about Pasternak mean?

Certainly, Chiplin would see the declassified documents as a total vindication of his position that Overland was going off the rails. Why should a Left journal be promoting a novel that owed its publication to the CIA?

Yet it’s fascinating to look more closely at the details of the CIA’s cultural campaign, a campaign that was predicated on Stalinism’s aesthetic conformism.

By and large, the Congress for Cultural Freedom did not promote conservatives. Quadrant caused its paymasters considerable unease because its key personnel were such a bunch of reactionaries. More typically, the CIA directed its money to aesthetic innovators – giving, for instance, particular attention in the visual arts to abstract expressionism. Saunders describes how the Congress for Cultural Freedom

put together several exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism during the 1950s. One of the most significant, “The New American Painting”, visited every big European city in 1958-59. Other influential shows included “Modern Art in the United States” (1955) and “Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century” (1952).

Because Abstract Expressionism was expensive to move around and exhibit, millionaires and museums were called into play. Pre-eminent among these was Nelson Rockefeller, whose mother had co-founded the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As president of what he called “Mummy’s museum”, Rockefeller was one of the biggest backers of Abstract Expressionism (which he called “free enterprise painting”). His museum was contracted to the Congress for Cultural Freedom to organise and curate most of its important art shows.

The museum was also linked to the CIA by several other bridges. William Paley, the president of CBS broadcasting and a founding father of the CIA, sat on the members’ board of the museum’s International Programme. John Hay Whitney, who had served in the agency’s wartime predecessor, the OSS, was its chairman. And Tom Braden, first chief of the CIA’s International Organisations Division, was executive secretary of the museum in 1949.

She quotes Donald Jameson, a former CIA case officer.

Yes, he says, the agency saw Abstract Expressionism as an opportunity, and yes, it ran with it.

“Regarding Abstract Expressionism, I’d love to be able to say that the CIA invented it just to see what happens in New York and downtown SoHo tomorrow!” he joked. “But I think that what we did really was to recognise the difference. It was recognised that Abstract Expression-ism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was. And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibitions.
“In a way our understanding was helped because Moscow in those days was very vicious in its denunciation of any kind of non-conformity to its own very rigid patterns. And so one could quite adequately and accurately reason that anything they criticised that much and that heavy- handedly was worth support one way or another.”

In the Overland debate, Chiplin and (even more so) Frank Hardy argued for an art under the leadership of the party, so as to insulate the cultural sphere from the influence of reactionaries. But, in reality, the CIA’s interventions didn’t succeed because the Communist Parties exerted insufficient control. On the contrary, they succeeded because the parties exerted too much control, with the heavy hand of Stalinism choking the life out of aesthetic movements in which communists had once been prominent.

The careers of some of those associated with Overland provide an illustration.

In 1930, a teenaged Judah Waten created a literary journal called Strife, which he and his friends distributed initially at a procession of the unemployed. Strife featured the work of many individuals later prominent in leftwing cultural circles – Waten himself but also Noel Counihan, Ralph Gibson, Brian Fitzpatrick and Herb McClintock.

Strife lasted only a single edition before the police declared a Fitzpatrick poem blasphemous and shut the journal down. But what makes the journal so striking is the pervading sense of experimentation, with the contributors grappling with dos Passos, Eliot and Freud, as well as the new ideas coming out of the Soviet Union.

By 1959, that nascent culture of aesthetic innovation on the Left had been well and truly supplanted by a socialist realism resting on a rigid and formally conservative model. Waten, once identified by the security forces by his ‘Bohemian appearance and tendencies’, had developed into an enforcer of Stalinist orthodoxies. Where Strife had delighted in shocking bourgeois sensibilities, Rex Chiplin now attacked Murray-Smith for

open[ing] his pages to thinly disguised pornography and debasement of youth in a poem by  Laurence Collinson – two and a half pages of verbal existentialism.

It might be noted that Collinson was gay.

A few decades earlier, the debates about modernism and realism in Australia had been dominated by Communists. In 1931, students from the (Communist-dominated) Melbourne University Labour Club published the journal Stream, which possessed the sole Australian rights to Ezra Pound’s poetry. The magazine combined an enthusiasm for High Modernism with a general sympathy for the Left – before it collapsed, it advertised a symposium on Australian writing under the evocative title, ‘Paris or Moscow’.

By the 1950s, however, the potential for a fruitful engagement between Modernism and Marxism had been dissipated, allowing room for the once-unthinkable proposition that aesthetic and political radicalism were unrelated.

Unfortunately, Murray-Smith’s disenchantment with the Communist Party did not entail a substantive reconsideration of these questions. Overland remained more or less committed to the aesthetics of socialist realism, albeit in a less dogmatic form – and the opportunity to re-establish a Left tendency within modernism was never seized.

It’s an interesting counterfactual: what might have happened had the ‘Overland controversy’ provoked a more thoroughgoing debate about the questions under dispute? After all, if modern art and literature produced uneasiness on the Communist Left, it also caused fissures on the Right.

As Saunders notes, the international tour exhibition ‘Advancing American Art’ might have been funded by the State Department as an anti-Communist venture – but it had to be cancelled because it generated so much outrage among American politicians.

‘If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot,’ said President Truman.

‘I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash,’ complained another congressman.

Here in Australia, Quadrant editor James McAuley declared the relationship between modernity and poetry to be ‘the same as that between a dog and the gas chamber’. Ideologically, Quadrant and Overland were at loggerheads – but their aesthetic preoccupations during the fifties were probably  closer than either would have liked to acknowledge.

Or, to put it another way, a space existed for political radicals to intervene in modern art. The role played by the CIA is, as much as anything, a reflection of the Left’s failure to do so.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

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  1. This is really interesting Jeff, thanks so much.

    The Maurice Shadbolt connection I didn’t know, and suggests some nice trans-Tasman links of a kind we’re trying to re-create now.

    There was nothing like Overland in the NZ Communist world. The closest thing perhaps (although it was never particularly literary) was NZ Monthly Review, & Shadbolt and others caused a bit of a stir breaking from it due to its slavish pro-USSR stance & general dullness.

    He’s best known now as a novelist, but it’s interesting that for a good while there in the 50s and 60s he was trying to chart an independent leftist stance. Shadbolt was one of the figures (associated with Owen Gager, now long-time resident in Australia) setting up Dispute, something of a precusor to the world of what Overland’s trying now. I wrote a little on them here:


    1. Thanks, Dougal.
      The Chiplin piece discusses Shadbolt as ‘Maurice Shadbolt of Landfall’ magazine – and then Landfall magazine comes in for a pasting alongside Helen Palmer’s Outlook. For what it’s worth, Chiplin writes:
      “Temper democratic,” [Murray-Smith] says. ‘Whose democracy ‘ is the question that arises.
      Let the contents answer.
      There’s an advertisement for a journal called Outlook: ‘A socialist review of “the new Left”.
      “New” beasue it is as onl as the establishment of the first socialist state — the USSR whose enemeies have never ceased in their futile attempts to tear it down.
      “New” because the failure of the Hungarian counter revolution in 1956 caused a “new” upsurge in attempts to prove that Marxism is wrong; that revistion of Mrxism to destroy its vitality and stregnth and make it an appendage of capitalism in the era of the nuclear weapon was essential if capitalism was to survive.”

  2. On this, and as currect Editor, can you see Overland ever being not so damned social realist in its literary predilections?

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