C. Wright Mills and ‘The God That Failed’


According to a review of a re-issue of The God that Failed by Stanley Hoffmann, in the September/October 1997 issue of the Council on Foreign Relations magazine Foreign Affairs, the book was conceived “in the heat of argument” between Richard Crossman, a Labour intellectual and politician, and the leftist author Arthur Koestler:

“…these essays by six intellectuals “describe the journey into communism, and the return.” The only comparable books about the appeals and delusions of communism on idealists outside the Soviet Union are Raymond Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals (1957) and Francois Furet’s more recent Le pass? d’une illusion (1995). But Aron is more didactic — superbly so — and Furet concentrates on the French case. What makes The God That Failed so powerful is the ardent, bitter, irreplaceable testimony of men like Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, Koestler, and Richard Wright — men of very different backgrounds and experiences, all attracted by the “glimpse of the Promised Land” (Koestler), in search of a faith, indeed of “a conversion, a complete dedication” (Silone), of “a state of historical-materialist grace” (Spender). How the dream of fraternity and social justice turns into a nightmare of servility to party double talk and sudden turns, how the fellow traveler drops out and has to return to his own lonely road, is a story that forms a sad, major part of twentieth-century life, in Western Europe and elsewhere.”

Louis Fischer, one of two American contributors to the book took offense when he was labeled an ex-Communist, because he had never joined a Communist Party, having only been sympathetic to the Soviet cause. In a note for a biographical entry, he referred to himself as a “left-of-center liberal who favors drastic social reform to improve living conditions” and an “active anti-imperialist.”

Nevertheless the ‘The God that Failed’ (TGTF) has become something of a historical artifact, with the phrase entering the language and the mythology around it used as a talisman by anti-communists — it was quoted in the final editorial flourish of The Nation by Tom Fitzgerald from Nation, 22 July 1972:

“…the bankruptcy of communism was plain to anybody who had waited so long to be convinced. It had been pronounced long before by men who had been and remained progressively liberal and idealistic – Keynes himself, Orwell, Edmund Wilson (Marxism at the end of the thirties) and R. H. S. Crossman (The God that Failed). They were the kind of men from whom Nation drew encouragement.”

While the phrase has now spread to a usage expressing any disgruntlement with a supposed orthodoxy imposed by others, the first edition appeared in 1949/50 and TGTF was continually reprinted until the late 1970s. In the 1980s, Regnery published the collection with an introduction by Norman Podhoretz, who decried the authors’ failure to choose the liberal West as the logical alternative to communism. The latest edition comes from Columbia University Press, with an introduction by David C. Engerman who argues it “defined a new paradigm for Western intellectual life in the Cold War: American-centered, closely tied to political power, and staunchly anti-Soviet.”

For other writers it is a classic example of propaganda. A recent example following in its footsteps, cited by Peter van Ham’s (2003) ‘War, Lies, and Videotape: Public Diplomacy and the USA’s War on Terrorism’ it is an anthology of prominent US writers (put together by the US State Department and translated into Arabic, French, Spanish and Russian) that “tries to convey what it means to be an ‘American writer’ at the beginning of the new millennium. By focusing on ‘American values’ such as freedom, diversity and democracy, this collection of stories tries to ‘humanize’ the USA’s negative image around the world.”

TGTF emerged at a period when the CIA’s strategy of promoting the ‘non-communist left’ (NCL) was to the fore and alongside Arthur Schlesinger’s ‘The Vital center’ and Orwell’s ‘1984’ it became used as a promotion of the ‘NCL’, for Frances Stonor Saunders in her (1999) ‘Who Paid The Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War’, the:

“… history of its publication serves as a template for the contract between the Non-Communist Left and the ‘dark angel’ of American government. By the summer of 1948, Koestler had discussed the idea with Richard Crossman, wartime head of the German section of the Psychological Warfare Executive (PWE), a man who felt ‘he could manipulate masses of people’, and who had ‘just the right amount of intellectual sleight-of-hand to make him a perfect professional propagandist’.”

She adds that Crossman involved another psychological warfare veteran, the American C. D. Jackson, in the project, quoting a letter from Crossman:

” ‘I am writing to ask your advice. Cass Canfield of Harpers, and Hamish Hamilton, my publisher here, are proposing next spring to publish a book called Lost Illusions, for which I have taken editorial responsibility. It is to consist of a series of autobiographical sketches by prominent intellectuals, describing how they became Communists or fellow-travelers, what made them feel that Communism was the hope of the world, and what disillusioned them.'”

Crossman then approached Melvin Lasky, at the time America’s “official unofficial cultural propagandist” in Germany, and one of the earliest advocates of organized intellectual resistance to Communism. As Crossman received contributions for the book, he sent them immediately on to Lasky, who had them translated in the offices of Der Monat. Saunders argues that with this background, TGTF was “as much a product of intelligence as it was a work of the intelligentsia.” Its contributors were former propagandists for the Soviets and now, embraced by government strategists, their ‘conversion’ proved an irresistible opportunity ‘to sabotage the Soviet propaganda machine which they had once oiled’.

“‘The God That Failed gang’ was now a nomenclature adopted by the CIA, denoting what one officer called ‘that community of intellectuals who were disillusioned, who could be disillusioned, or who hadn’t taken a position yet, and who could to some degree be influenced by their peers as to what choice to make’. The God That Failed was distributed by US government agencies all over Europe. In Germany, in particular, it was rigorously promoted. The Information Research Department also pushed the book. Koestler was happy. His plans for a strategically organized response to the Soviet threat were coalescing nicely. Whilst the book was rolling off the presses, he met with Melvin Lasky to discuss something more ambitious, more permanent.”

In the mid-90s the Public Record Office released files documenting the first years of existence of the Information Research Department (IRD). A secret organization, its larger purpose was to gather confidential information about Communism and produce factually based anti-Communist propaganda for dissemination both abroad and at home. Recipients of its unattributable output included a number of prominent politicians, trade unionists, journalists and intellectuals. Employing as many as 300 staff at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, IRD was scaled down considerably during the 1970s, until being closed in 1977 by the Labour Foreign Secretary David Owen. See Hugh Wilford (1998) The Information Research Department: Britain’s secret Cold War weapon revealed,’ Review of International Studies, 24, 353–369.

C. Wright Mills and The God that Failed

C. Wright Mills wrote a contemporary review of TGTF in 1957 (orignally for a collection ‘Russia in Transition’) which appears in his (1962) The Marxists. This starts with the ironic mention that Ignazio Silone once said jokingly an Italian communist leader: ‘The final struggle will be between the communists and the ex-communists.’ Mills begins:

“In the propaganda skirmishes against the U.S.S.R. and communism, the ex-communist or the ex-fellow traveller is the most active sharp-shooter. With the peevishness that distinguishes him from Silone, Arthur Koestler makes a similar point: ‘It’s the same with all you comfortable, insular, Anglo-Saxon anti-communists. You hate our Cassandra cries and resent us as allies – but, when all is said, we ex-communists are the only people on your side who know what it’s all about.’ . . . Now six writers – Koestler, Silone, Andre Gide, Louis Fischer, Richard Wright, and Stephen Spender – get together to expose and destroy The God That Failed. The ‘legion’ of ex-communists does not march in close formation. It is scattered far and wide. Its members resemble one another very much, but they also differ. They have common traits and individual features. All have left an army and a camp – some as conscientious objectors, some as deserters, and others as marauders. A few stick quietly to their conscientious objections, while others vociferously claim commissions in an army which they had bitterly opposed. All wear threadbare bits and pieces of the old uniform, supplemented by the quaintest new rags. And all carry with them their common resentments and individual reminiscences.”

Mills notes that those, for instance, who joined in the 1920s went into a movement in which there was plenty of scope for revolutionary idealism. The structure of the party was still fiuid; it had not yet gone into the ‘totalitarian mould’. Intellectual integrity was still valued in a communist: ‘it had not yet been surrendered for good to Moscow’s raison d’etat.’ He argues that those who joined the party in the 1930s began their experience on a much lower level.

“Right from the beginning they were manipulated like recruits on the party’s barrack squares by the party’s sergeant majors.”

Silone, who joined the party in 1921, recalls with real warmth his first contact with it conveying the intellectual excitement and moral enthusiasm typical of communism in the early days. On the other hand, the reminiscences of Koestler and Spender, who joined in the 1930s, reveal the ‘utter moral and intellectual sterility of the party’s first impact on them’.

“The communist of the early drafts was a revolutionary, before he became or was expected to become a puppet. The communist of the later drafts hardly got the chance to breathe the genuine air of revolution. Nevertheless, the original motives for joining were similar, if not identical, in almost every case: experience of social injustice or degradation; a sense of insecurity bred by slumps and social crises; and the craving for a great ideal or purpose, or for a reliable intellectual guide through the shaky labyrinth of modem society. The newcomer felt the miseries of the old capitalist order to be unbearable; and the glowing light of the Russian revolution illumined those miseries with extraordinary sharpness. Socialism, classless society, the withering away of the state all seemed around the comer. Few of the newcomers had any premonition of the blood and sweat and tears to come. “

For Mills the ex-communist are bitterly denouncing the betrayal of their hopes, and he notes that Koestler acknowledges no precedent.

“Yet, as he eloquently describes his early expectations and illusions, we detect a strangely familiar tone. Exactly so did the disillusioned Wordsworth and his contemporaries look back upon their first youthful enthusiasm for the French Revolution:

Bliss was in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

The intellectual communist who breaks away emotionally from his party can claim some noble ancestry. Beethoven tore to pieces the title page of his Eroica, on which he had dedicated the symphony to Napoleon, as soon as he learned that the First Consul was about to ascend a throne. Wordsworth called the crowning of Napoleon ‘a sad reverse for all mankind’. All over Europe the enthusiasts of the French Revolution were stunned by their discovery that the Corsican liberator of the peoples and enemy of tyrants was himself a tyrant and an oppressor. In the same way, the Wordsworths of our days were shocked at the sight of Stalin fraternizing with Hitler and Ribbentrop. If no new Eroicas have been created in our days, at least the dedicatory pages of unwritten symphonies have been torn with great flourishes. In The God That Failed, Louis Fischer tries to explain somewhat remorsefully and not quite convincingly why he adhered to the Stalin cult for so long. He analyses the variety of ‘motives, some working slowly and some rapidly, which determine the moment at which people recover from the infatuation with stalinism.”

For Mills there can be no greater tragedy than that of ‘a great revolution’s succumbing to the mailed fist that was to defend it from its enemies.’ There can be no spectacle as disgusting as that of ‘a postrevolutionary tyranny dressed up in the banners of liberty’. He argues that the ex-communist is morally as justified as was the ex-jacobin in revealing and revolting against that spectacle. But he asks this:

“is it true, as Koestler claims, that ‘ex-communists are the only people… who know what it’s all about’? One may risk the assertion that the exact opposite is true: Of all people, the excommunists know least what it is all about. At any rate, the pedagogical pretensions of ex-communist men of letters seem grossly exaggerated.”

He notes here that most of the contributors to TGTF (Silone is an exception) have never been inside the real communist movement, ‘in the thick of its clandestine or open organization’. As a rule, they moved on the literary or journalistic fringe of the party. Their notions of communist doctrine and ideology usually spring from their own literary intuition, which is sometimes acute but often misleading.

He adds to this the ex-communist’s characteristic ‘incapacity for detachment’.

“His emotional reaction against his former environment keeps him in its deadly grip and prevents him from understanding the drama in which he was involved or half-involved. The picture of communism and stalinism he draws is that of a gigantic chamber of intellectual and moral horrors. Viewing it, the uninitiated are transferred from politics to pure demonology. Sometimes the artistic effect may be strong – horrors and demons do enter into many a poetic masterpiece; but it is politically, unreliable and even dangerous. Of course, the story of stalinism abounds in horror. But this is only one of its elements; and even this, the demonic, has to be translated into terms of human motives and interests. The ex-communist does not even attempt the translation. In a rare flash of genuine self-criticism, Koestler makes this I admission:
As a rule, our memories romanticize the past. But when one has renounced a creed or been betrayed by a friend, the opposite mechanism sets to work. In the light of that later knowledge, the original experience loses its innocence, becomes tainted and rancid in recollection. I have tried in these pages to recapture the mood in which the experiences [in the Communist Party] related were originally lived – and I know that I have failed. Irony, anger, and shame kept intruding; the passions of that time seem transformed into perversions, its inner certitude into the closed universe of the drug addict; the shadow of barbed wire lies across the condemned playground of memory. Those who were caught by the great illusion of our time, and have lived through its moral and intellectual debauch, either give themselves up to a new addition of the opposite type, or are condemned to pay with a lifelong hangover.

For Mills, Koestler gave a truthful and honest characterization of the type of ex-communist to which he himself belonged. But he finds it difficult to square this selfportrait with Koestler’s other claim that the confraternity for which he speaks ‘are the only people. . . who know what it’s all about’. Mills argues that the most that the intellectual ex-communist feels is his own sickness; he is ignorant of the nature of the external violence that has produced it, let alone the cure:

“This irrational emotionalism dominates the evolution of many an ex-communist. ‘The logic of opposition at all cost,’ says Silone, ‘has carried many ex-communists far from their startingpoints, in some cases as far as fascism.’ What were those startingpoints? Nearly every ex-communist broke with his Party in the name of communism. Nearly every one set out to defend the ideal of socialism from the abuses of bureaucracy subservient to Moscow. Nearly every one began by throwing out the dirty water of the Russian Revolution to protect the baby bathing in it. Sooner or later these intentions are forgotten or abandoned. Having hroken with a party bureaucracy in the name of communism, the heretic goes on to break with communism itself. He claims to have made the discovery that the root of the evil goes far deeper than he at first imagined, even though his digging for that ‘root’ may have heen very lazy and very shallow. He no longer defends socialism from unscrupulous abuse; he now defends mankind from the fallacy of socialism. He no longer throws out the dirty water of the Russian Revolution to protect the baby; he discovers that the baby is a monster which must be strangled. The heretic becomes a renegade. How far he departed from his starting-point, whether, as Silone says, he becomes a fascist or not, depends on his inclinations and tastes – and stupid stalinist heresy-hunting often drives the ex-communist to extremes.”

As an underlying rule Mills finds that the intellectual ex-communist ceases to oppose capitalism, often rallying to its defence:

“and he brings to this job the lack of scruple, the narrow-mindedness, the disregard for truth, and the intense hatred with which stalinism has imbued him. He remains a sectarian. He is an inverted stalinist. He continues to see the world in white and, black, but now the colours are differently distributed. As a communist he saw no difference between fascists and social democrats. As an anti-communist he sees no difference between nazism and communism.”

Mills describes the internalisation of acceptence of the party’s claim to infallibility resulting in the anti-communist now believing himself to be infallible. Having once been caught by the ‘greatest illusion’, he is now obsessed by the ‘greatest disillusionment’ of his time. Whereas his former illusion at least implied a positive ideal. His disillusionment is utterly negative.

“His role is therefore intellectually and politically barren. In this, too, he resembles the embittered ex-jacobin of the Napoleonic era. Wordsworth and Coleridge , were fatally obsessed with the ‘Jacobin danger’; their fear dimmed even their poetic genius. It was Coleridge who denounced in the House of Commons a bill for the prevention of cruelty to animals as the ‘strongest instance of legislative jacobinism’.

Possibly influenced by the cold war climate, that then included the McCarthy period, Mills places the ex-jacobin as the prompter of the anti-jacobin reaction in England.

“Directly or indirectly, his influence was behind the Bills Against Seditious Writings and Traitorous Correspondence, ‘ the Treasonable Practices Bill; the Seditious Meetings Bill , (1792-4), the defeats of parliamentary reform, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and the postponement of the emancipation of England’s religious minorities for the lifetime of a generation. Since the conflict with revolutionary France was ‘not a time to make hazardous experiments’, the slave trade, too, obtained a lease on life – in the name of liberty. In quite the same way our ex-communist, for the best of reasons, does the most vicious things. He advances bravely in the front rank of every witch hunt. His blind hatred of his former ideal is leaven to contemporary conservatism.”

For Mills this ‘grotesque performance’ reflects the impasse in which the anti-communist finds himself: a blind alley in which “an entire generation leads an incoherent and absent-minded life.”

The historical parallel drawn here extends to Mills’ observation that despite Napoleon’s violence and frauds, the message of the French Revolution survived, to echo powerfully throughout the nineteenth century. In the year of Napoleon’s defeat, Shelley wrote to Wordsworth:

In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty –
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

For Mills, the ardour with which the writers of TGTF defend the West against Russia and communism is sometimes chilled by uncertainty or residual ideological inhibition and this, he finds, appears between the lines of their confessions, or in curious asides. Silone, for instance, still describes the pre-Mussolini Italy, against which as a communist he had rebelled, as ‘pseudo democratic’. He hardly believes that post-Mussolini Italy is any better, but he sees its stalinist enemy to be ‘far, far more abject’.

“More than the other co-authors of this book, Silone is surely aware of tbe price that Europeans of his generation have already paid for the acceptance of lesser-evil philosophies. Louis Fiscber advocates the ‘double rejection’ of communism and capitalism, but his rejection of the latter sounds like a feeble face-saving formula; and his newly found cult of Gandhi-ism impresses one as merely an awkward escapism.”

But it is in Koestler’s writing that he identifies, ‘in the midst of all his affectation and anti-communist frenzy’, a few curious mental reservations. Koestler argues that if we survey history and compare the lofty aims in the name of which revolutions were started, and the sorry end to which they came, we see again and again how a ‘polluted civilization’ pollutes Its own ‘revolutionary offspring’. For Mills, if the ‘revolutionary offspring’ (communism) has really been ‘polluted’ by the civilization against which it bas rebelled, then no matter how repulsive the offspring may be, the source of the evil is not in it — but in that civilization.

Mills argues that the ex-communist’s utter confusion of intellect and emotion makes him iIIsuited for any political activity, and that he is haunted by a vague sense that he has betrayed either his former ideals or the ideals of bourgeois society:

“like Koestler, he may even have an ambivalent notion that he has betrayed both. He then tries to suppress his sense of guilt and uncertainty, or to camouflage it by a show of extraordinary certitude and frantic aggressiveness. He insists that the world should recognize his uneasy conscience as the clearest conscience of all. He may no longer be concerned with any cause except one – self-justification. And this is the most dangerous motive for any political activity. It seems that the only dignified attitude the intellectual excommunist can take is to rise ‘au-dessus de la melee’. […] Let him try to regain critical sense and intellectual detachment. Let him overcome the cheap ambition to have a finger in the political pie. Let him be at peace with his own self at least, if the price he has to pay for phony peace with the world is self-renunciation and self-denunciation.”

For Mills the striking feature of the book is how little observation and interpretation, and how much philosophizing and sermonizing, it contains:

“But can the intellectual really now be a detached observer of this world? Even if taking sides makes him identify himself with causes that in truth are not his, must he not take sides all the same?”

Mills aims to resolve this by recalling that some great ‘intellectuals’, in a similar situation in the past, refused to identify themselves with any established cause. Their attitude seemed incomprehensible to many of their contemporaries: but history has proved that their judgement seems to have been superior to the phobias and hatreds of their age — he mentions Jefferson, Goethe, and Shelley, who, each in a different way, were confronted with the choice between the Napoleonic idea and the ‘Holy Alliance’. All three, again each in a different manner, refused to choose.

“As the Minister of his Prince, Goethe opportunistically bowed to every invader. But as a thinker and man, he remained non-committal and aloof. […] Shelley watched the clash of the two worlds with all the burning passion, anger, and hope of which his great young soul was capable: he surely was no Olympian. Yet not for a single moment did he accept the self-righteous claims and pretensions of any of the belligerents.”

Well the analogies are there to be made with the present Political class of ex-communists and ex-socialists who gather around the Neo-Conservatives, but one feels Mills has anticipated them, and their failings.


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